By phone Wednesday morning, I reached Jordan Rash, the conservation director for Forterra.
Cordially, I asked him what he’s up to.
“Just sitting here trying to save every tree in Pierce County,” he told me with a slight chuckle.
“My usual day, really.”
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It’s a joke, of course, but it’s also not that far off. As Rash describes Forterra’s work, the agency “secures and cares for the keystone lands we need for Washington’s sustainable future, from remote wildlands, to farms and working forests, to places in our cities for parks, the arts and affordable housing.”
That’s a long-winded way of saying that Forterra, mainly through state and federal grants, concerns itself with protecting a lot of important stuff — including the state’s natural wildlife and habitat. Specifically, Rash’s work revolves around the acquisition of property, largely for conservation purposes. He helps arrange deals that look out for the integrity of this place we call home.
I called Rash for a reason. Earlier this week, The News Tribune’s John Gillie reported on a percolating county proposal to increase park impact fees that Pierce County levies on developers to $2,552 per dwelling, up from the remarkably low $385 per residential unit that’s currently imposed. The new figure comes out of months of meetings and discussions held by a work group that included community members and environmental groups, along with developers and real estate types.
$385 The park impact fee per residential unit that the county currently imposes
So far, it’s being portrayed as a win-win proposition, and an important one for a county marred by decades of questionable (if not downright negligent) land-use decisions.
In truth, it’s a no-brainer.
The park fee hike would be a substantial increase. But it would also be a much needed step in the right direction.
As Gillie reported, the park impact fee Pierce County charges is far below many surrounding counties and municipalities. In fact, Pierce County is at the very bottom of the list.
For comparison, Olympia charges $5,334 per dwelling, while Bonney Lake charges $2,974. Meanwhile, University Place charges $3,644 and Gig Harbor collects $1,500.
As a result, Pierce County has just 6.2 acres of parks per 1,000 residents. King County more than doubles that figure, with 12.9 acres per 1,000 residents, while Thurston County boasts 10.6 acres of parks per 1,000 residents.
In his piece, Gillie highlighted the story of a 64-acre former dairy farm and cattle ranch. In 2003, its owners — Joan and Stan Cross — sold the land to the county for the expressed purpose of creating a park for the growing community of Frederickson.
In the 13 years that have passed, almost no progress has been made on the project, which includes an adjacent property.
Why? Because, as County Parks Director Tony Tipton told The News Tribune, the county simply doesn’t have the money to construct the facilities — including parking lots, ball fields and trails — that the vision calls for.
Increasing the park impact fees Pierce County collects — which we’re told would raise about $57.4 million over the next 15 years — would go a long way toward remedying this particular predicament.
But the Crosses’ old farm is far from the only example of important park work being thwarted in Pierce County by lack of funds, the result of a sweetheart impact fee deal for developers who already benefit from Pierce County’s longstanding penchant for allowing sprawl to creep through the county.
Without hesitation, Rash — who, it’s worth noting, was not part of the work group that helped come up with the proposed park fee hike — was able to cite a handful of similar situations.
There’s the Buckley Land Preserve, a 206-acre site that Forterra helped facilitate a deal for the county to acquire in 2012.
To date, Rash says, “Very little has been done with it.”
Then there’s the 94-acre Devil’s Head site at the southern end of Key Peninsula. In 2010, the county acquired the property — which it described as a “jewel” in a press release announcing the deal — with help from the Cascade Land Conservatory (Forterra’s former name).
“It, too, has not been developed,” Rash told me. “It’s this really great spot for people to birdwatch, kayak, watch orcas swim by, there’s beach access.”
Rash said the reason for both significant delays is simple: “Because the county just doesn’t have the money.”
Rash describes the situation as “frustrating.” I’m sure he’s being diplomatic.
With the proposal now on the table, attention turns to the Pierce County Council, the body historically responsible for the sad state we find ourselves in when it comes to land use.
It’s also a body that — more recently — hasn’t exactly been known for its bipartisan efforts.
Derek Young, chairman of the council’s Community Development Committee, says he expects the council to begin grappling with the issue in early October. Will this time be different, and mark the rarest of feats: a forward-looking, bipartisan decision for conservation and parks?
This is work we’ve been planning on for decades – we as a community. ... If we’re not going to build it now, when are we?
Jordan Rash, conservation director for Forterra
“I have to believe that … the council is going to at least see the value in raising this (fee),” Rash offered.
“This is work we’ve been planning on for decades — we as a community,” he said of Pierce County’s unfinished parks and trails.
“If we’re not going to build it now, when are we?”