In a ruling that disappointed government officials and developers but thrilled some local farmland preservation activists, the state Growth Management Hearings Board has sided with opponents of a controversial project in the Sumner area.
The board’s decision, made public Tuesday, means the future of the Orton Junction mixed-use development anchored by a YMCA is in limbo.
Sumner officials said they intend to appeal.
The board found fault with Pierce County’s decision to loosen protections on nearly 200 acres of rural and agriculture land. It found the county action was not fully supported by state code, nor did it fully comply with the county’s own planning requirements.
Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow said in a statement that the decision “just doesn’t make much sense.” He said it potentially jeopardizes “the best farmland protection package” in county history.
But the farmland advocates who’ve lobbied against Orton Junction development for more than a year said the state growth board made the right call.
“Studies have shown Pierce County has lost more of its farmland than any other county in Western Washington. (That loss) is piece-meal, like this would have been,” said April Putney, director of policy and advocacy for the Seattle-based Futurewise. “We’re really hopeful that today’s ruling will help turn the tide.”
Futurewise was part of the coalition that appealed to the state hearings board after the Pierce County Council last fall granted Sumner’s request to designate 182 acres of rural and agriculture land south of the city as urban growth area.
Developer Michael Corliss owns most of the property, and he’s talked of a project containing everything from housing to retail to medical and education facilities to a farmers market. He also pledged land for a Y.
The county Planning Commission last summer turned down Sumner’s request in a split vote.
But the County Council eventually signed off after the conservation group Forterra helped negotiate what became known as the Seven Principles agreement. Among other things, the pact would significantly increase the amount of farmland gaining permanent protection elsewhere in the county – creating what officials describe as a “green wall.”
Enslow said in his statement that Orton Junction “would use private dollars, not taxes, to permanently protect over 500 acres of farmland in our valley” – offering greater protection than zoning can provide.
Enslow and other Orton Junction proponents have touted the project’s potential economic benefits, including job creation. Bob Ecklund, president and CEO of the YMCA of Pierce and Kitsap Counties, said the Sumner Y alone would create 250 construction jobs and 250 permanent jobs.
It’s slated to be 50,000 to 70,000 square feet. Ecklund said his agency has raised nearly $7.5 million and could be ready to break ground next year.
“There’s a need for this facility,” Ecklund said, adding the Y supports Sumner’s plan to appeal and is “confident we’ll overcome this speed bump.” Corliss said he’s also confident the mixed-use project eventually will be built. “What I’ve told everyone is that it’s going to take years to get to the end of the process,” he said.
In a statement, Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and council members Joyce McDonald and Dan Roach said they’re disappointed. They called the Seven Principles agreement “a model solution to the conflict between growth and preservation” and said they’ll “finish a thorough analysis” of the board’s decision before planning their next steps.
Decisions made by the hearings board can be appealed to Superior Court.
The board’s written decision in the Orton Junction case numbers more than 130 pages, and many officials still were combing through it late Tuesday afternoon.
The board didn’t accept all of the appealing group’s arguments, but it found the county’s de-designation of agricultural resource land “relied primarily on consideration of factors beyond the guidelines” in Washington Administrative Code.
The decision also says the urban growth area expansion failed to fully comply with Pierce County’s comprehensive plan.
Marian Berejikian, executive director of Friends of Pierce County, which was part of the appeal to the state hearings board, said she hopes Sumner officials will switch their focus to finding a better spot for the Y and other components of Orton Junction.
“I think the hearings board upheld the (growth) policies and regulations that are in place,” Berejikian said. “They’re there for a reason.”email@example.com