September 16, 2019 11:30 AM, EDT

Shippers Sue Oregon Port Over Fee

Port of Astoria, OregonPort of Astoria by Getty Images

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An association representing oceangoing ships is suing the Port of Astoria in Oregon over its $300 fee for pier maintenance.

The Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association filed suit Sept. 13 in federal court in Portland claiming the port’s fee is unconstitutional.

The Port Commission in March approved the $300 fee for each ship longer than 250 feet passing upriver to fund the maintenance of Pier 1, which the port claims is a vital emergency pullout for ships at the mouth of the Columbia River. The fee became effective in July.

The shipping association has long warned of a potential legal challenge over the fee. The port has expected one, budgeting $75,000 to defend the fee in court.

Dave Boyajian, a ship captain and attorney with Portland firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt who previously warned the Port Commission against enacting the fee, filed the lawsuit.

“[The fee] is assessed against most (not all) commercial vessels passing by the Port of Astoria, and it bears no relationship to costs created by or services provided to passing vessels,” he wrote. “Indeed, the vessels do not cost the port a penny, nor do they request or receive any benefits or services from the Port of Astoria — they just get a bill.”

Will Isom, the port’s interim executive director, has said the agency is holding back on collection while trying to expedite a lawsuit and holding the money in a protected account in case the port loses. But Boyajian claims the port has been attempting to collect from most oceangoing ships while not assessing the fee to commercial barges that surpass the 250-foot minimum.

The shipping association has cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that shot down a property tax imposed on oil tankers by Valdez, Alaska, because the Constitution bars states from enacting tonnage fees without an act of Congress.

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Michael Haglund, a maritime attorney for the port, has couched the fee’s legitimacy in a previous Supreme Court case, where the Alabama State Docks Commission was allowed to charge passing ships near Mobile a fee for policing.

The association’s suit seeks a permanent injunction and declaration barring the port from imposing, collecting or using the fee.

Other ports on the river, including the Port of Longview, have objected to the fee.

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