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Congressional help needed to clear Richland land for development

Congress is getting involved to help develop some prime light industrial and commercial land in Richland that once was part of the Hanford nuclear reservation.

With development efforts stalled, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., introduced a bill this week in an attempt to cut through some federal red tape.

“This legislation removes restrictions and barriers that have inhibited the port’s ability to develop this parcel of land for the economic benefit of the Tri-Cities region,” Newhouse said in a statement.

Since 1995 the Port of Benton has owned 71.5 acres south of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory campus, north of Stevens Center and east of Washington State University between George Washington Way and Stevens Drive.

However, some deed restrictions have prevented most development beyond the use of some ‘50s and ’60s era buildings that came with the property.

The land originally was part of Hanford’s 3000 Area owned by the Department of Energy but not directly used for plutonium production. DOE transferred the land to the U.S. Maritime Administration for the Port of Benton in about 1995.

The land is not on the Columbia River but at the time it was transferred, the Maritime Administration was interested in a boat building operation on the land during talk of developing a foreign trade zone.

The boat operation folded soon after the land transfer, said Scott Keller, executive director of the Port of Benton. But the deed restrictions of the Maritime Administration remain.

The port cannot sign leases for more than five years or allow new uses of the property without Maritime Administration approval.

The federal approval process generally takes about three months and by that time once-interested businesses generally have found other accommodations, according to port officials.

Getting businesses to make investments or sign long-term leases on land with federal government deed restrictions is difficult, Keller said.

Only in recent years have restrictions on business and commercial use of the land been lifted. The creation of the Hanford Reach National Monument and more recently the Manhattan Project National Historical Park showed that the land was not likely to be used as a cargo facility for the Columbia River.

The port has worked with the U.S. General Services Administration and the Maritime Administration to get deed restrictions eased, said Diahann Howard, the Port of Benton's director of economic development and government affairs. But the regulations they must follow have prevented progress from being made.

“The legislation will give clarity and direction” to the agencies, she said.

The legislation requires the port to pay the federal government for the unrestricted use of the land. Whether the port can get credit for the improvements it has made, including roads, sewer and fiberoptics.

The land belonged to the federal government from 1943 to 1995. It was among acreage seized during World War II for the Manhattan Project, which created Hanford. The port did not know if the land had been in private or government ownership before WWII.

“The Port of Benton has targeted uses for this land that could yield significant economic growth and the creation of jobs for the local communities and for the region,” Newhouse said.

If the port is released from deed restrictions, it plans light industrial or commercial development of the land.

“No smokestacks,” Keller said. “We want to be good neighbors.”

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