Future of Van Lierop land stirs controversy in Puyallup

Staff writerJuly 13, 2013 

Puyallup officials are reviewing proposed land-use changes that could lead to industrial development of one of the valley’s last daffodil farms.

Meanwhile, a private meeting between public officials and the site’s potential developer has sparked an election-season fire.

Two members of the Puyallup Planning Commission, who also are running for City Council, have been criticized for attending the private meeting last month. Among the attendees was the developer who is seeking the proposed rezone on 13 acres of bulb grower Neil Van Lierop’s property near Shaw Road.

Afterward, the Puyallup city attorney warned in an email to the two commissioners that such meetings “often generate public criticism and tend to undermine the confidence of the public in government.”

Van Lierop, the last in a five-generation line of daffodil farmers, closed his operation in May.

The Planning Commission is exploring amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan, a precursor to reclassifying Van Lierop’s property for industrial development. Seattle-based real-estate firm Schnitzer West has a contract with Van Lierop to purchase the land pending the city’s action.

Use of the property has long been controversial.

The land is seen as a gateway to Puyallup, said John Palmer, a former Planning Commission member and current City Council member.

In 2008, there were extensive discussions on the long-range vision for the area.

Palmer, who was highly involved in the process during his time with the Planning Commission, said much time and energy went into striking a balanced approach to developing Puyallup’s remaining agricultural land. It led to a mixed-use focus that included residential and retail space.

He said it wasn’t easy to get local landowners, including Van Lierop, to sign on to the vision, but an agreement was reached and annexation followed.

Now, new controversy has emerged after Planning Commission chairman Steve Hastings and vice chairman Chris McNutt attended the private meeting on June 5 that included a representative from Schnitzer West. Hastings and McNutt are running for City Council seats this fall.

In an email obtained by The News Tribune, Puyallup City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto raised several concerns to Hastings and McNutt. He pointed to the ethical implications of attending a closed-door meeting with a land-use applicant, which he suggested may violate the state Open Meetings Act.

“A meeting at which land use issues were discussed could have a bearing on the Schnitzer site and application,” Yamamoto wrote. “The presence of a senior Schnitzer representative and planning commission members at the private meeting … could raise material questions about the appearance of fairness and integrity of the proceedings.”

Yamamoto advised Hastings and McNutt to recuse themselves from the rezoning application process, which both commissioners did at a public hearing Wednesday.

Attendees of the private meeting in question were various business representatives and City Council members, including Mayor Rick Hansen, John Knutsen and Tom Swanson.

“I didn’t see any conflict whatsoever (at the June 5 meeting),” Hansen said. “I was even surprised they recused themselves (from Wednesday’s hearing).”

Swanson said the Planning Commission is an advisory board, and the council has the final say on any rezone.

“I think it is important that we go out and get all perspectives on issues,” he said. “I would have concern with limiting our advisory board from doing the same thing.”

At the public hearing Wednesday, Hastings and McNutt disclosed the goals of the June 5 meeting. Hastings said it focused on projects in the general area and covered infrastructure, zoning and other land-use issues.

Hastings said he didn’t know the representative from Schnitzer West would attend.

“It is important we (maintain) the integrity of this board,” he said at the hearing. McNutt said he was confident he could have remained impartial, but still felt it was best to remove himself from the process.

Citizens and fellow commissioners at the hearing scrutinized their conduct.

Citizen Bud Metzger said Hastings and McNutt weren’t obligated to stay at the private meeting when the Schnitzer West representative showed up.

“Why didn’t you turn around and leave?” Metzger asked.

Heather Shadko, a fellow commissioner who is running against Hastings for City Council, said she doesn’t understand why nobody at the meeting saw a conflict. She inquired why the information discussed at the meeting wasn’t brought to the full Planning Commission.

Gil Hulsmann is a representative from Abbey Road Land Services who organized the meeting on behalf of client and landowner Roger Knutson, the Puyallup Valley’s last remaining daffodil bulb farmer.

Hulsmann said the commission’s proceedings and the private meeting were unrelated.

“The meeting was about development issues in the area,” he said. “It had nothing to do with the rezone at all.”

Of the attendees at the private meeting, several have either donated money or have spouses who have donated to McNutt’s campaign, according to filings with the state Public Disclosure Commission. Hastings is self-financed, and therefore doesn't have to claim contributions with the PDC.

At last week’s public hearing, McNutt acknowledged that Van Lierop has contributed money to his race. Hastings also said Van Lierop has endorsed his campaign, but has not contributed financially.

Yamamoto, the city attorney, said that officials who recuse themselves also forfeit their right to deliberate.

But at Wednesday’s hearing, Hastings asked a question of a city staffer related to the rezone proposal, drawing flak from the audience.

He also said the commission should possibly consider ending public comment on the proposal. Commissioners voted to allow continued comment from citizens when the public hearing resumes on July 24.

Yamamoto typically advises public officials to physically move away from the group in cases where they recuse themselves.

“Ideally, he should have removed himself entirely,” he said of Hastings.

Palmer and fellow Councilman Kent Boyle have requested the City Council discuss the commissioners’ conduct at Tuesday’s regular council meeting.

Palmer said Hastings’ and McNutt’s closed-door meeting undermines the integrity of the process, and the council should address that.

“The citizens of Puyallup need to understand that three councilmen and two planning commissioners are meeting behind closed doors with developers in this area,” he said. “And that is wrong.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682

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