If the Tacoma City Council has its way, a picturesque waterfront development near Point Defiance Park would be wholly within the city of Tacoma’s boundaries and not shared with its tiny neighbor, Ruston.
On what was the new mayor and three new council members’ first day on the job, every member of the Tacoma City Council signed a letter Tuesday asking state lawmakers to allow Point Ruston’s annexation into the city of Tacoma.
The council’s letter calls Ruston a “baffling opponent,” which has dragged its feet for years in the permitting process on its side of the development while construction on the Tacoma side of the waterfront village is moving along.
The letter, sent to the area’s legislative delegation, including Rep. Jake Fey, states, “The continued lack of collaboration by (Ruston) in permitting and approving this project has led to too many missed opportunities for the city of Tacoma and Point Ruston.”
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The Tacoma council’s move was a broadside in a years-long tussle between the developer, Point Ruston LLC, and Ruston, and it caught Town Council members off guard when they learned of the annexation proposal from a reporter.
“This is a money grab,” Ruston Councilman Jim Hedrick said on Wednesday. “I just can’t believe this is the best way to address the situation. To say it’s counterproductive is being kind.”
The latest public salvo between the developer and town was over the location of an ice skating rink in Point Ruston’s Grand Plaza. Ruston’s contracted planner said the city needed more time to review the proposed rink and its safety features. Instead the developer nudged the rink to the Tacoma side of the plaza, which is half in each city.
To Fey, the skating rink was an example of Ruston’s recalcitrance.
“They didn’t even want to do a permit for a skating rink, for crying out loud,” Fey said. “It’s gone to the ridiculous in my mind.”
The Tacoma council’s letter says it strongly supports a change to state law to allow annexation of Point Ruston into Tacoma if the landowner agrees.
Ruston officials contend they’re being railroaded.
“Mr. Fey hasn’t talked to anyone in Ruston,” Hedrick said. “We are left twisting in the breeze if Mr. Fey’s bill is successful.”
Fey confirmed he had not spoken with the Ruston council on the matter.
“My intention was to chat with them and advise them of what my intentions would be once I’m ready to file the bill,” Fey said Tuesday.
Fey was the architect of a legislative annexation effort two years ago, but he pulled the bill after Ruston officials promised to work with Tacoma’s on a joint-permitting agreement for the sprawling development.
Though both cities negotiated for months, the deal fell apartin late 2015. Ruston’s council nixed the deal, Hedrick said, because Tacoma wanted final say over construction in Ruston.
Tacoma’s stake in the success of Point Ruston is clear. The city loaned the developer $31 million to build utilities, roads and other infrastructure under what’s called a local improvement district.
In its letter to legislators, the council says without construction on the Ruston portion, there’s a risk the developer won’t pay that money back. Point Ruston LLC is current on its LID payments but still owes $21.2 million to Tacoma.
Members of the Tacoma council spoke in favor of the annexation proposal at a study session Tuesday.
“When you look from up above, you see all the development happening on the Tacoma side and next to nothing on the Ruston side, which illustrates the longtime frustration and concern,” Councilman Ryan Mello said. “Revenues from the development and future development are absolutely crucial to the repayment of public bonds.”
The council’s letter also quoted former Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who told The News Tribune in a story last Sunday about her time in office that it was time to annex the town of Ruston into Tacoma. While she spoke about annexing all of Ruston into Tacoma, the letter proposes only annexing the footprint of Point Ruston.
“We provide a lot of services for them anyway, and this bizarre impasse at Point Ruston that is keeping everyone from enjoying this huge investment is just not productive,” Strickland told the newspaper in an interview.
Point Ruston developer Loren Cohen said in an interview they hit yet another snag with Ruston in December: After submitting an application for a public market on the Ruston side of the project in July, they got a letter from Ruston last month saying the application was incomplete.
“It’s an intentional act by them to stop our project, to interfere with our project, to just be uncooperative,” Cohen said. “I think that their attitudes get in the way of being able to get this project moving forward.”
One such project was the start of the Silver Cloud Hotel, which Cohen said took months longer than it should have because of Ruston’s delays.
Hedrick, the Ruston councilman, said the town is simply waiting for Point Ruston to submit complete applications and answer questions.
“We have made suggestions on how to get it complete,” Hedrick said.
If Tacoma annexes Point Ruston, the city would gain more than its local improvement district money back. It would also gain all of the sales taxes and hotel-room taxes the development would generate for decades to come.
“That’s taking the money that these businesses generate into your own city,” Hedrick said. “I just can’t believe they think this is the best way to address the situation.
“We are at the table. We are trying to get to a place where we can get construction going and this state interference is not helping.”