Complaining of indecisiveness and inaction by Ruston city officials, the developers of the $1.2 billion Point Ruston residential and retail project want 42 acres of the project now in Ruston annexed into the adjacent city of Tacoma.
“We can’t do business in Ruston,” said Tim Thompson, a consultant to Point Ruston LLC, saying the city of 749 residents sandwiched between Tacoma and Point Defiance park is unwilling and unequipped to handle the major land use decisions necessary to move the Point Ruston project forward.
The project is sited on 97 waterfront acres that formerly was the site of the Asarco copper smelter. The development’s south half is in Tacoma. Its north half is in Ruston.
The project developers Thursday initiated a notice of intent with Tacoma to request the annexation.
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Ruston Mayor Bruce Hopkins said the town will aggressively resist any effort to bring the remainder of the Point Ruston site inside Tacoma’s municipal boundaries.
“Ruston isn’t just a bunch of podunk ninnies that they’d have you believe,” Hopkins said. The town is taking a stand to ensure the development complies with the master plan for the site, he said.
Loren Cohen, a director of the company creating the Point Ruston development, said the company had tried other remedies to get Ruston’s approval for building permits for structures on the Ruston part of the property.
“We have exhausted every option to move this project forward in the town of Ruston,” he said. “After months and months of negotiations and an apparent solution, we find ourselves at a standstill because the mayor of Ruston refuses to honor our agreements.”
Cohen said some land use decisions have been pending for as long as four years with Ruston. Cohen said Tacoma’s land use planning department has issued permits in as little as two months for buildings on its part of the site.
Cohen said the town of Ruston’s delays mean several businesses won’t open on time, including a new Silver Cloud Hotel, two restaurants, 100,000 square feet of retail space and a 25,000 square-foot grocery store. When fully built, the development could have as many as 3,000 residents.
The only structure under construction inside the Ruston part of the project is an underground parking garage that Point Ruston is building without a Ruston permit. The developer said he is proceeding with that project under the authority of the federal Superfund law. Point Ruston is a federal Superfund site because of its contamination with heavy metals from the 100 years of smelter activity. The plan to deal with that pollution in part calls for much of the site to be capped with pavement or buildings. The parking garage’s basic structure will be part of that cap.
Ruston has red-tagged the parking structure project to halt work and sent its police chief to the site to threaten to arrest construction workers.
Hopkins said the city has yet to issue a permit to complete the parking garage because its current design doesn’t comply with the master land use plan adopted six years ago for the site.
That plan showed a public space on the top floor of the garage, said the mayor, but present plans call for that area to be parking, he said.
“What the developer needs to do is comply with the master plan or to seek an amendment to that plan,” Hopkins said.
Thompson said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, attempted to mediate a solution between Point Ruston and the town of Ruston in mid-November.
A few days later, the Point Ruston and town officials met with Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland and other city leaders to address issues in what she said was a productive manner.
“I was actually very optimistic,” she said. “Since then, things have stalled yet again.”
Thompson said Hopkins agreed to specific solutions to a dozen issues that kept the project from moving forward. But Ruston never replied when the developer sent the small city the minutes of the meeting with Strickland, and the Hopkins didn’t show up at a follow-up meeting in December.
Both Tacoma and Ruston stand to benefit from the development, Strickland said, “And now Ruston has gone silent.”
The Ruston mayor said the lack of follow-through was on Point Ruston’s part. He said he issued permits on some projects, but the developer on at least one occasion failed to pick up that permit.
Paperwork filed Thursday asks the Tacoma City Council to hold a public meeting within 60 days to decide on whether to proceed with annexation. If the Tacoma council gives the nod, it would be up to the Ruston Town Council to approve it.
Cohen said he’s not holding his breath. If the Town Council doesn’t approve the annexation, he says he thinks the state Legislature would consider a solution. He didn’t specify what that would be.
If the remainder of the development is annexed to Tacoma, Cohen said he expects that Ruston would be offered some compensation in the form of shared tax revenues from the developed site.
Ruston’s Mayor Hopkins said his town is not anti-business. It just wants the developer to comply with its land-use rules.
The city of Tacoma invested roughly $31 million to pay for utilities and roads in the Point Ruston development to help move it forward. That money will be paid back over 30 years by the developer, City Councilman Ryan Mello said.
But with no construction on the Ruston side, “they don’t have the revenue to pay back Tacoma, and that’s the concern,” Mello said. “They need to get building permits and get cranes in the sky to pay back Tacoma.”
Strickland said the Tacoma City Council would consider whether to accept Point Ruston’s annexation petition. How long will that take?
“Nothing unreasonable, given the amount of time we’ve spent on this already,” Strickland said.