Portland Drone Testing Facility Cancelled, Neighbors & River Advocates Focus on Next Steps

Verizon’s Skyward subsidiary had sought to test drones with military applications on the Willamette River in North Portland, a proposal that met vigorous disapproval from locals.

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Protesters assembling on the Willamette as a part of efforts that halted Verizon’s plan to test drones over the river.

Last week, the Port of Portland announced it would cancel a pending lease with Verizon for seven acres of riverfront property in one of Portland, Oregon’s most diverse neighborhoods. Verizon and their Portland-based subsidiary Skyward had sought to lease this area to test drones on Verizon’s 5G network along the Willamette river.

“We appreciate the Port responding in support of community members and organizations who organized quickly to oppose this facility,” said Cassie Cohen (she/her), Executive Director of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition. “It’s now time for impacted communities to determine a more appropriate purpose for this sacred land, and other river-front parcels like it — including potential zoning changes. There should be a community-centered process moving forward in land use decisions so that this level of conflict does not resurface again.”

Neighbors raised a variety of concerns around the communication and approval process for the facility, as well as its environmental, social justice, and quality of life impacts. Without Portland’s Greenway Overlay Zone notification requirements, the Neighborhood Association would have never heard about the development until construction began. Residents also highlighted the possibility of potentially disastrous collisions with the helicopters, small planes, and birds of prey that frequently fly over the river and neighborhoods. They held protests and packed contentious listening sessions with the Port of Portland and Verizon/Skyward.

“This just goes to show that important decisions regarding publicly owned lands are best made when the community and their public officials work together. All stakeholders must be considered when it comes to the revitalization of our beautiful river,” said Matt Stein (he/him), whose Green Anchors Eco-Industrial Park is located next to the cancelled drone testing site. “Portlanders care deeply about restoring the Willamette, and doing what is good both for the river and for our community.”

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Art McConville (he/him), NiiMiiPuu (Nez Perce/Cayuse), who serves as a volunteer on the executive steering committee of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, speaks at the last protest before the lease was denied.

“This is a major grassroots win,” said Lia Holland (she/they), an activist with national digital rights organization Fight for the Future who lives in North Portland. “But it also illustrates how much work the City, Port and companies like Skyward that profess human rights and racial justice as core values have before them. Right now, there are few meaningful regulations on drones, data privacy, or law enforcement surveillance collusion in our city — with Portland’s recent bans on facial recognition as a notable exception. The protection of the rights of Portlanders when it comes to new technologies should be on the agenda for City government right now. Innovation won’t slow down. Our representatives need to catch up.”

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Activists fly a banner reading “No Drones” from Portland’s St Johns Bridge, in view of the cancelled drone testing site.

The following neighborhood activists and coalition members are available for comment and interviews:

Art McConville, American Indian Movement — Portland Chapter

Bob Sallinger, Audubon Society of Portland

Cassie Cohen, Portland Harbor Community Coalition

Jan Zuckerman, Stop Zenith Collaborative & Stop Fracked Gas/PDX

John Spence, NW Council of Water Protectors

Jon Smart, Cathedral Park Neighborhood Association

Lia Holland, Fight For the Future

Mamelang Memela, Just Climate

Matt Stein, Green Anchors Eco-Industrial Park

Michael Pouncil, Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group

Sarah Taylor, Linnton Neighborhood Association

Turtle Farahat, Seven Circles Natural Medicine

Please reach out to lia@fightforthefuture.org to get in touch. The photos used in this article are also available, please reach out should you require other sizes.

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