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Deed Question Haunts Port

This is the first of a two-part series on the Port of Astoria’s Tuesday special meeting, which lasted more than three hours.

Oregon State University owns the orange former seafood lab at the corner of Lief Erikson Drive and 36th Street, buying it around 1978 and using it until after 1997 as a seafood lab. Commissioners from the Port of Astoria, which paid for half of the building’s construction and sold it to OSU, have expressed interest in acquiring the building.

Both sides have previously stated that there was likely the intent of a reversionary clause, as pointed out in Port meeting minutes from 1966, meaning OSU’s building would revert to Port ownership if not used for a lab.

The main problem with the Port’s current claims of ownership on the building: The Port’s attorney at the time, George Fulton, forgot to include the reversionary clause in the later deed, and OSU’s attorney didn’t catch the discrepancy either.

“I was told by our attorney that we cannot legally get the land back,” said CEO Hank Bynaker, adding that there was clearly the intent of a reversionary clause. He’s been working with OSU to find an amenable agreement.

The seafood lab, a second location for OSU in Astoria, was christened in 1968 after being funded through a $59,000 grant from the Port, matching federal dollars from the Federal Economic Development Administration, a donation of land by the city of Astoria and further support by the university.

It was originally leased by the Port to OSU, which bought it around 1978 and now uses half of it for storage, the other half occupied by Safe Harbor Animal Hospital.

Port meeting minutes from 1966 referred to a reversionary clause as part of the original lease and purchase agreement, in which ownership of the lab would revert to the Port if the building was no longer used for seafood research. Christina DeWitt, director of the OSU Seafood Lab, has said she doesn’t doubt that the clause was mentioned in Port meetings.

“I’m trying to figure out how the train left the tracks on game day,” said Bynaker about retracing the discussions on the lab.

Commissioner Floyd Holcom said discussions about the building’s ownership arose when former Port Executive Director Jack Crider talked about buying it for $500,000.

Research at the old lab, near the Port’s East End Mooring Basin, has led to such innovations as a shrimp-hake “Shrimp-bo” protein patty, faster testing to find mercury in tuna and a phosphate dip that improved the yield of shrimp meat on finishing pans.

OSU moved from the old lab to its new location at 2001 Marine Drive in the fall of 1997. It still stores equipment in the old building and has the full set-up for a pilot plant, a space for entrepreneurs developing new products in the fishing industry.

DeWitt has said OSU is trying to start a small-scale food processing lab at the new center, which would require moving some research operations back to the old lab at the mooring basin.

“They want to keep the building, but they don’t care if it sits empty,” said Melanie Haase, who has operated her animal hospital in half the building since May 2011. She said that after looking at the building in 2010, OSU offered her the entire facility. It has since backpedaled, she said, limiting her to half.

She added that there have been several maintenance issues there such as ripping up of tiles, moldy walls, and that she’s invested at least $10,000 in cleaning her area up while paying $2,700 a month on her lease.

Haase said she’s been looking to expand into a grooming and kenneling service, but that her days are likely numbered under OSU’s ownership, as they want to move research facilities back into the building.

Commissioners mentioned a previous agreement that OSU would keep possession of the building until July 1, the beginning of a new fiscal year, and then give it back to the Port. Bynaker said he can’t find any record of that on paper, although he’ll continue pursuing the issue.

“I think we’re starting from about step one again,” said Commissioner Dan Hess.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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