Puyallup faces lawsuit from prospective Van Lierop farm developer

Staff writerJune 19, 2014 

A real-estate firm with plans to buy former farmland in Puyallup and build a 470,000-square-foot warehouse project there has sued the city.

Schnitzer West secured a contract with retired bulb farmer Neil Van Lierop last year to buy his land for industrial development.

Since then, a rezone, a development moratorium and other land-use changes in the area have slowed the process and frustrated parties on both sides.

This week, Schnitzer filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court challenging an ordinance adopted by the Puyallup City Council this spring that added stringent development standards to the property near East Pioneer Avenue and Shaw Road.

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the new standards and order the city to pay undisclosed legal fees and other damages.

Schnitzer claims the city imposed an emergency moratorium to halt its project and passed the new rules “with the explicit intent to frustrate and prevent” developing land that had been clearly designated for industrial growth.

The property has long been at the center of a divisive land-use debate. Open-space advocates have urged Puyallup officials to make sure only low-impact development is allowed in what they call a gateway to the city. Meanwhile, surrounding landowners have resisted what they say are inappropriate limits on private property rights.

Schnitzer’s claim responds to the ordinance, approved in May, that extended rules for open space, landscaping, building size and other standards to more parcels of land in on the eastern edge of Puyallup.

Schnitzer says the city’s ordinance “subjects (the land) to development limitations” that don’t apply to other properties in the city and prevents “commercially viable industrial warehouse uses” on the property.

The Seattle-based company also says the new standards are “arbitrary, discriminatory” and inconsistent with Puyallup’s comprehensive plan.

Puyallup City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto said the lawsuit is baseless. He argues that the new rules won’t affect the firm’s warehouse project as long as Schnitzer follows its original plans. Schnitzer submitted a complete application before the new regulations were approved, so the warehouse project is subject to the old rules.

However, the lawsuit anticipates the possibility that the developer’s application could be “significantly changed or delayed by circumstances outside of (Schnitzer’s) control.”

Yamamoto also disputed what the lawsuit describes as illegal “spot zoning.” He said the affected land is unlike any other areas in the city and is subject to different standards.

“This area is unique from the rest of the city because it is still raw, bare land,” he said. “It’s got unique characteristics and thus is amenable to unique zoning.”

Yamamoto also said the city has yet to see contract terms between Van Lierop and Schnitzer to know if and how their business transaction was disrupted.

Jeff Harmer, a senior investment manager with Schnitzer, said he couldn’t comment due to the pending litigation.

In January, a shift in the council majority resulted in an abrupt change in position on the issue.

Late last year, the council narrowly approved a controversial rezone on a 4-3 vote, despite the planning commission’s opposition to the change. The rezone was favorable to Van Lierop’s plans to sell his family’s five-generation daffodil farm.

The rezone streamlined two parcels with slightly different industrial zoning, creating a unified property that allowed for warehouse development.

The momentum shifted a few months later, when two newly elected council members joined a pair of sitting council members in favoring the moratorium and the stricter development rules.

Yamamoto noted that the new council majority could have taken a more extreme approach and reversed the rezone entirely, but instead worked within the framework of the previous council’s decision.

Schnitzer‘s lawsuit, however, says some members of the council showed clear bias during various votes and violated fairness laws as a result.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682 kari.plog@thenewstribune.com @KariPlog

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