The city of Ruston wasn’t required to take any action Tuesday when a petition came before it to annex a giant chunk of the town to Tacoma.
Under state law, doing nothing is all that’s required to let die an attempt by the developer of Point Ruston, a $1.2 billion urban village being built on a federal Superfund site, to have all 97 acres of its footprint inside Tacoma’s city limits.
But the Ruston council, in a 4-0 vote with one absence, chose to make its opposition known by passing a resolution that disapproves of Tacoma taking the 43 acres of Point Ruston that reside within Ruston city boundaries.
The resolution “is just sending a note back to Tacoma so they know we’re not going to approve this petition,” Councilwoman Jane Hunt said.
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“We have put in too much work to allow this to go to Tacoma in any way, shape or form,” said Councilman Jim Hedrick. “None of the problems are solved by annexation. I’m not comfortable turning property over to Tacoma when I don’t believe proper procedures have been followed.”
Hedrick’s remarks refer to federal environmental officials’ concern that the Point Ruston developer, led by father-and-son team of Mike and Loren Cohen, is misusing a provision of environmental cleanup law to build within Ruston city limits without obtaining city permits.
The Cohens have said they are using the federal permit exemption as a last resort, because they contend Ruston, population 749, is incapable of handling such a large development. Ruston officials have said the developer isn’t building things properly and isn’t allowing city inspectors to verify the work.
State regulators got involved last fall after they discovered regulations weren’t followed when a propane gas system was installed on the Tacoma side of the project. The News Tribune reported this month that Tacoma Fire Department was unaware of the extent of the system for more than a year, because it had been installed without the department issuing a permit or inspecting the lines. Retroactive testing has assured the department of its safety, and Mike Cohen has said his team is working on replacing the propane system by bringing natural gas to the site.
The simmering dispute between the developer and the city of Ruston boiled over in January when the developer formally petitioned the city of Tacoma to annex the Ruston portion of the project. The Tacoma Council voted in February to accept the petition, throwing the ball back into Ruston’s court. If Ruston had voted to allow the annexation to move forward, work would have begun in earnest on land use and fiscal issues.
Loren Cohen, Point Ruston LLC’s legal representative, said the vote was not a surprise, but he said it was short-sighted and doesn’t end anything.
“We’re not deterred,” he said Tuesday night by phone. “Annexation remains the best outcome for the town and the project.”
Asked how that would happen since Ruston’s resolution Tuesday ends the discussion under state law, Cohen said “it’s too early to say.”
“Here’s what happens next: The town will continue to run up attorney fees. They will continue to run up third-party contractor fees, which will run up taxes for its residents,” Cohen said. “A mutually agreed annexation between Tacoma and Ruston could be the town’s savior. We will work in that direction.”
Before casting his formal vote, Councilman Lyle Hardin said the council’s vote shows annexation is a non-starter, and any money Tacoma spends toward that end “will be sheer folly on their part.”
“I sincerely believe we are saving the Tacoma council from taking a vote they do not want to take,” he said, referring to the final vote required during any annexation process. “They would have to come before the public and say ‘Yes, we want to steal this property that generates tax money from that city.’ ”
Hedrick said the Tacoma City Council’s vote to move ahead on annexation was not about good governing. He quoted Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who voted to accept the annexation petition, as saying her decision was about protecting the city’s investment at Point Ruston.
Tacoma borrowed $31 million for roads, sidewalks, underground utilities and ornamental street lights that is to be repaid by Point Ruston property owners. Tacoma city officials have said the development would have been dead in its tracks without that investment in public infrastructure.
“I think (Strickland) was talking about Tacoma the developer, not Tacoma the city,” he said. “I will until my dying day believe this is about Tacoma’s decision to give the developer $31 million of taxpayer money.”