The last Puyallup Valley daffodil farmer is preparing for industrial development on his land right outside the Puyallup city limits.
Pierce County is reviewing a preliminary proposal for a warehouse distribution center on land owned by Roger Knutson, owner of Sumner-based Knutson Farms.
The plans are likely to add fuel to a contentious land-use debate over an adjacent swath of former daffodil farmland situated inside Puyallup.
Knutson has submitted several short-plat applications to secure permits that would allow a developer to purchase and build on the property.
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“He just wants to get the property entitled so he can get the property ready to sell,” said Dan Balmelli, executive vice president of Barghausen Consulting Engineers, a Kent-based firm helping Knutson with the permitting process.
County documents outline plans for a warehouse distribution center covering 181 acres on 13 parcels in unincorporated Pierce County just outside east Puyallup at 134th Avenue East.
The site is sandwiched between Puyallup River floodplain and former daffodil farmland that has long been at the center of a dispute inside the Puyallup city limits.
Knutson’s proposal was first submitted in November. He didn’t return multiple requests for comment Friday.
Balmelli said it amounts to about 3.2 million square feet of building area.
“That could change,” he said. “It could go up, it could go down.”
Balmelli stressed the applications aren’t construction documents; they are intended to get the property vested with current zoning code. Once the applications are accepted, he said, developers could purchase the land knowing what regulations they’d have to comply with.
“It’s a big project, so there are some issues we know will have to be resolved, negotiated and studied before (Knutson) gets all of his preliminary land-use approvals,” Balmelli said.
Balmelli said he’s also working with Schnitzer West, a developer that plans to build a 470,000-square foot warehouse on nearby farmland. He said Schnitzer could be one of many regional developers interested in purchasing Knutson’s land once it is development-ready.
The adjacent property — owned by retired bulb farmer Neil Van Lierop, who has secured a deal to sell the land to Schnitzer — has long been at the center of a land-use dispute.
Open-space advocates have urged Puyallup officials to allow only low-impact development in what they call a gateway to the city. Meanwhile, Van Lierop and surrounding landowners have resisted what they say are inappropriate limits on private-property rights.
Schnitzer sued the city over new development standards that the developer calls “arbitrary, discriminatory” and inconsistent with Puyallup’s comprehensive plan.
During public deliberations in the past two years, residents urged the city to proceed with caution to avoid a “sea of warehouses” in the area. Some argued that once one warehouse is built, others will follow.
Puyallup Councilman Tom Swanson at the time stressed that much of the surrounding open space in the area — primarily located in unincorporated Pierce County — was already zoned to allow warehouses.
He had warned those on both sides of the debate that the city’s adverse relations with landowners would dissuade those outside the city limits from cooperating with Puyallup, which could result in the kind of high-density development that everyone fears.
“This is one of those times I wish I were wrong,” Swanson told a reporter this week in response to Knutson’s plans.
Swanson said there’s no guarantee the warehouse project will come to fruition. But if it does, he hopes the city will try to find a way to help the farmer cash in on his land while still benefiting the community.
“That’s the largest blank canvas,” Swanson said of the area. “Something of higher development potential could happen out there.”
The challenge, he said, will be gaining back Knutson’s confidence in Puyallup leadership after the drawn-out battle between Van Lierop and the city. If that doesn’t happen and a high-density development is built, Swanson said the community shouldn’t blame Knutson.
The Puyallup Valley’s history as a world leader in daffodil growing is one reason residents are so keen on preserving the land for open space.
Washington still has daffodil bulb farms, including the Skagit Valley farms in Mount Vernon. But the Puyallup Valley’s identity centered on daffodils for decades, and Knutson is the only farmer carrying on the legacy after Van Lierop‘s retirement in 2013.
The city wrote a letter to Pierce County upon notification of Knutson’s warehouse proposal, stressing that it is “strongly interested” in all future actions related to the project. The letter noted the potential effects the project would have on city traffic, trails, floodplain and utilities.
The letter also outlined the “well-documented” history of discussions between Puyallup and Pierce County that “emphasized the County’s strong intent” to maintain open space at the proposed development site and surrounding area.
“As Mr. Knutson’s subject property also was a centerpiece of those agricultural preservation discussions over the past decade,” it states, “we would expect the County to rigorously enforce permanent agricultural set-asides on this current Knutson Farms development proposal as occurred with Mr. Van Lierop’s land during the recent annexation.”
Van Lierop’s land was brought into Puyallup as part of a larger annexation in 2012, after four years of negotiations between landowners, city staff and elected officials. Under the agreement, 30 acres of his land were set aside for agricultural, recreation or open space uses.
Knutson’s property was originally included in the annexation area, but the farmer later chose not to be part of it.
Councilman John Palmer said he is frustrated with Knutson’s plan for industrial development. He said the 2008 annexation talks included a vision for mixed-use and open space in the area.
“We’re seeing something very different,” he said. “I don’t think this is compatible with the area.”
Palmer added that he’s confident the city can work with Knutson on a mutually beneficial plan for his land.
In response to Puyallup’s concerns, project manager Marcia Lucero said the county remains committed to the preservation effort.
“Pierce County staff will work with the applicant to identify opportunities to set aside open space, create functional parks, and other amenities to make the project more harmonious with the surrounding area,” Lucero wrote in a letter to the city.
Lucero told The News Tribune the application is in its early stages. There are several pending reviews and moving parts, she added, including traffic and wetlands studies.
If industrial development moves forward on Knutson’s property, Balmelli said the earliest a warehouse could be built is spring 2016.
Knutson “is going to be working closely with Pierce County and Puyallup to mitigate the impacts of the development,” Balmelli said. “He’s always planned to do that.”