In February, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg announced he wanted to hire a famous architect to design a world-class golf course on county-owned land in University Place.
For many people, the first reaction might have been: "Huh?"
Why was the county's top administrator getting serious about a golf course?
The answer dates back to 1993, but the county executive's newest passion is also the latest version of a 7-year-old plan to restore land scarred by mining operations at the 930-acre Chambers Creek Properties.
It's also a vehicle to advance the county's top priority: pumping the economy full of jobs and tourists.
"What we're trying to put in place here is a resource that can actually produce revenues, " said County Councilman Terry Lee (R-Gig Harbor). "We've committed ourselves to economic development. You almost have to step back and look at the big picture."
Not everyone agrees on how to achieve the economic and environmental goals at Chambers Creek Properties.
Council members Kevin Wimsett (D-Spanaway) and Dick Muri (R-Steilacoom) are trying to halt Ladenburg's plan to publicly fund and build the golf course. They're offering a resolution to require the county to seek private funding for the project, but they don't have enough votes to make that happen. On Tuesday, the council will vote on whether to spend $1.3 million in sewer fees to hire Robert Trent Jones II to design the course.
"I don't want to look back 10 years from now and say, 'Boy, the county blew it on that one, '" Wimsett said. "I'm convinced we need to shop this out."
LEGISLATION SPARKS RECLAMATION
The requirement to reclaim the site originated in 1993, when state lawmakers changed the state surface mining law to require restoration.
The idea was to make sure companies or agencies didn't just walk away from a piece of land after plumbing it for resources, such as gravel, said Dave Norman, assistant state geologist for the state Department of Natural Resources.
"Even if it never became productive from the standpoint of building something, at least it would become stable and not eroding or causing problems for adjacent properties, " he said. "A lot of (former mines) end up as wildlife habitat."
But it's not uncommon for companies and government agencies to propose building recreational uses, such as golf courses, to help rejuvenate former mining sites, Norman said. Pierce County is among the few in Washington that have advanced a links project this far.
In 1971, one of the early owners of property at Chambers Creek Properties - Pioneer Sand & Gravel Co. - proposed building a 27-hole golf course to transform a gravel pit.
Documents show the company believed the golf course, surrounded by new houses, would provide "the highest public benefit." It also predicted the site would serve "the enjoyment of generations to come."
The prediction has yet to come true, but it found new hope in 1992 when the county bought 290 acres for the county-owned Chambers Creek regional wastewater treatment plant's future expansions. The county then acquired another 640 acres to buffer nearby residents from the sewage odors that occasionally waft from the treatment plant.
In 1997, the county kept the idea of a golf course alive when it adopted a 50-year master plan envisioning a $70 million makeover for Chambers Creek Properties. It featured an 18-hole golf course, arboretum, botanical garden, trail, sports fields, environmental education center and restaurant.
HERE'S THE PLAN
According to the plan, the county would complete the projects in 10-year phases. The plan did not make a golf course a priority in the first 10 years. Instead, it called for other public improvements first, including access to the shoreline of the waterfront property, a boat launch in the Chambers Bay area and walking trails along Grandview Drive West and 64th Street West.
The plan did not specify how the county would pay for the projects.
Most of the trail project is done. The boat launch remains on hold, pending a plan to protect salmon habitat. And shoreline access is still only on paper. Other projects to alter the site have been completed, including two sports fields and an administrative building housing the county's water, solid waste and environmental services staff.
Now, Ladenburg is proposing the golf course as an even greater venture: a world-class 275-acre, 27-hole Scottish links-style course intended to create jobs, allow the county to expand wastewater treatment operations and generate enough revenue to afford the other public improvements called for in the 1997 master plan.
The project is estimated to cost between $12.7 million and $16.95 million to build. Under Ladenburg's plan, the county would cover the construction and start-up costs of the golf course by selling bonds and then using revenue from the course to pay off the debt.
He said the county has done enough planning to begin the site's metamorphosis.
"It's time to do something, " he said.
A LOWER-COST OPTION EXISTS
The former mining area at Chambers Creek Properties encompasses 655 acres. The county has about 500 acres left to rejuvenate. The golf course would alter about 55 percent of what's left, or 275 acres.
The state Department of Natural Resources has not set a date for the county to finish modifying the site.
Additionally, the golf course isn't the only option to help restore the site, and County Council members have reviewed lower-cost alternatives presented by county staff.
One alternative would have the county spend up to $3.3 million to recover the site by planting vegetation, installing an irrigation system, stabilizing slopes with a mixture of grass and wildflower seeds and fencing off steep-sloped areas.
Those projects would still afford public access to the site.
But county officials said that kind of minimalist approach would not fulfill the goals of the master plan.
"To just replant it in very basic grasses and allow Scotch broom and the place to just go wild adjacent to Puget Sound is not accomplishing that purpose of allowing the public to enjoy a spectacular asset, " said Tony Tipton, who manages the golf course project for the county's Public Works and Utilities Department.
No one on the County Council has offered an alternative project to the golf course, but critics say the council is wrongly putting the public's money at risk.
Councilman Muri said private companies have the marketing and financing skills to make a golf course a success and to generate revenue to pay for other public improvements.
"They're going to be really tight with the money, making sure there are no cost overruns, " he said.