Under pressure from the city of Tacoma and state Legislature, the town of Ruston ceded control of permitting for its share of a high-end development on the shores of Commencement Bay late Tuesday.
The agreement between the governments of Tacoma and Ruston gives the bigger city sole authority to permit the parts of the Point Ruston project inside the Ruston town limits. Parts of the massive retail and residential development lie within both jurisdictions.
Ruston officials are allowed to comment on permits and the process, but any disagreement would have to go through a dispute-resolution process, up to and including a final ruling in court.
It was a bitter compromise for leaders of the small town, but one they felt they had no choice but to make. Bills still alive in the Legislature would have allowed Tacoma to annex all of Point Ruston, bringing with it control of the development and the property- and sales-tax revenues generated by it. Ruston officials have said that would have resulted in the death of the town.
Asked if Ruston would have agreed to turn over permitting to Tacoma had those bills been dead, Mayor Bruce Hopkins answered succinctly Tuesday.
“No,” he said.
The Tacoma City Council also voted to approve the permitting agreement Tuesday.
In a statement prior to the votes, developer Loren Cohen said Point Ruston was “ready to get to work.”
Tacoma council members lauded the agreement Tuesday night, saying the development is vital to the area’s economy.
Tacoma and Ruston have long permitted the 97-acre site differently. Tacoma’s head planner has lauded its “culture of yes,” sometimes bending the rules without breaking them to accommodate the fast pace of development on the Tacoma side of the line.
Cohen has long said Ruston stalls in processing permits. Ruston officials have countered that they just want the developer to adhere to what he said he would build. The particulars of Point Ruston’s layout is baked into the town’s land-use codes, which Ruston leaders have said they cannot deviate from without changing the town’s law.
The developer’s grievances with Ruston are long.
The most recent example came late last year when Point Ruston asked the town of Ruston to permit an ice rink that straddled the Tacoma-Ruston city line. The town’s contracted planner wanted more information about the structure as well as a formal building permit. There was a time crunch, so Cohen nudged the rink to the Tacoma side of the city divider where he could get permission faster.
The new permitting agreement was hammered out in a marathon negotiating session last weekend, with fine touches being added in the hours before both city councils voted to approve it, said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier.
Ruston approached Dammeier for help after Tacoma asked the Legislature for annexation approval. That kicked off a series of discussions with lawmakers at the state and federal levels. They included U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, who has facilitated discussions about the development in the past, Kilmer’s staff said.
“I am pleased that there is now a clear path forward, and I am hopeful this represents a new chapter of folks working together,” Kilmer said in a statement.
The mood was anything but celebratory at Ruston’s meeting Tuesday night. For 45 minutes council members talked behind closed doors while about 50 residents milled about the former school auditorium.
Some town supporters wore shirts saying “Keep Ruston Square,” a moniker that refers to Ruston’s city boundaries, a mile square.
Council members emerged from their executive session and cast defeated and frustrated glances about the auditorium as they took their seats. Three years prior they declined to pass a similar agreement with Tacoma. At that time, state legislation that would allow Tacoma to annex the entire town of Ruston was no longer viable.
This time, state Reps. Jake Fey and Laurie Jinkins, along with state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, kept the annexation threat alive. Their bills recently passed out of their respective House and Senate local government committees and could have continued to advance. Those bills will be withdrawn as a part of the deal between Tacoma and Ruston.
With the interlocal agreement approved, all new permits and related inspections for the entire Point Ruston development will now be processed by Tacoma. Both cities will coordinate on permitting, and only Ruston’s code would apply to the part of the development within the town’s boundaries. But the permitting process will be completed by Tacoma employees and Tacoma will have the final authority to make decisions.
Ruston will have five business days to review permits before Tacoma issues them for projects, according to the agreement.
Ruston officials can disagree with Tacoma’s findings, which would kick off a resolution process which can last no more than a few weeks. All parties can file a petition in court if they disagree.
Despite the new permitting plan, outstanding issues remain.
Ruston has said Point Ruston owes the city nearly $500,000 in unpaid permit and inspection fees, with Cohen contesting those amounts. The developer has not filed an appeal with the city to contest the fees, Ruston officials say. The two parties will enter mediation for that and other issues.
Completing Point Ruston is important not just for the area’s economy but also the environment. Point Ruston sits atop one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in the nation. The development is the cleanup, EPA officials have said.