Meeting on future of former Weyerhaeuser campus leaves protesters frustrated

An overflow crowd attended Thursday’s Federal Way City Council public hearing of a proposed fish processing plant and a warehouse for the former Weyerhaeuser campus.

As it turns out, however, there’s little the council can do to alter the transaction. To do so could open the city to serious legal problems, according to the city.

Weyerhaeuser announced two years ago that it would move its operation, and 800 employees, to Seattle. Sale of the property was announced this year to Industrial Realty Group, a nationwide real estate development and investment firm.

Orca Bay Seafoods has proposed building a 250,000-square-foot freezer facility and corporate headquarters on 19 acres at the Federal Way Weyerhaeuser campus.

The developer promises that forested buffers will remain on the property and other trees would be planted. The broad meadows would remain.

Many in the crowd expressed their concerns.

One woman from the audience said tearfully, “We will fight tenaciously for appropriate development.”

IRG also is looking for a new corporate tenant to fill Weyerhaeuser’s iconic headquarters building. The building, visible from Interstate 5 and framed with tiers of greenery, is part of an IRG worldwide marketing effort.

But it was the fish processing plant proposal that raised concern among the 43 speakers who had signed in to speak before the meeting began and others who later joined the list. Two auxiliary rooms were used to supplement the council chamber to accommodate an overflow crowd of some 350 residents.

By city law, the decision to approve the fish-plant project is not the council’s to make. Instead, that role falls to Scott Sproul, Federal Way interim community development director. Should his decision be appealed, a hearing examiner will review the case. Should that decision be appealed, the legal path leads to Superior Court. Should there be a decision to cancel IRG’s plans, there could be lawsuits. Residents also will have a chance to appeal any environmental review.

Sproul attended the meeting, but did not speak to the audience.

When the council’s lack of legal authority in the case was noted by a council member hours after the meeting started, shouts were heard from the audience as speakers interrupted council members and each other.

Someone called out, as the meeting ended, “Why are we here?”

“So we could all hear from you,” answered Mayor Jim Ferrell. “This session is provided as a courtesy.”

He also explained that if action were taken, “we will open the city to massive jeopardy.”

“We can’t make a land-use decision based on politics. We have to make them based on the letter of the law,” said the mayor.

Earlier in the evening, the atmosphere in the council chambers had been generally cordial. A few protesters waved and carried signs, and one, 4-year-old Wyatt Westbrook, wore a paper sandwich board proclaiming: “No Industrial Zone — Save My Woods.”

Dana Hollaway of Federal Way sat at the back of the room and said of the project, “To think they’re going to put up a bunch of warehouses. It affects the wildlife. We have trees that have been there forever, and they’re going to clear-cut them to make room for warehouses.”

Tom Messmer, IRG senior vice president, made presentations with other city officials and a representative from Orca Bay Seafoods.

A 1994 agreement with Weyerhaeuser outlined certain specific criteria concerning zoning and use at the site, and those criteria — especially concerning permitted uses, zoning, development standards and procedures — are central to the agreement with IRG.

Part of the impetus behind the sale to IRG, said Federal Way Chief of Staff Brian Wilson, concerned comments from citizens who listed “jobs and employment” as their “No. 1 priority.”

Messmer explained that misinformation “gets out there, and it’s a difficult bell to un-ring.”

He said Weyerhaeuser’s former headquarters will not be demolished. It will not be turned into condominiums or a hotel. He does not return calls from residential developers, so neighbors need not fear apartments could be built.

“We’re not asking for anything outside the 1994 agreement,” he said.

Having paid $70 million for the 430-acre site, he said, “We need to do something smart there.”

A representative from Orca Bay explained the fish in the proposed fish processing plant would be frozen, that there would be “no smells, no odors.” He explained the facility would accommodate 53 trucks daily that would operate from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m.

Members of the audience began speaking just after 8 p.m. and continued for three hours. Only one public commenter spoke in favor of the proposal.

Several members of the audience asked for a moratorium on any decision. The council will meet again next week, although no agenda item concerning the matter was proposed Thursday.

In a hallway near the end of the meeting, Messmer said: “There’s a high level of emotion. I want to see all of these things done well. I want them to listen to the facts. We’re not going to poison our own well.”

C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535