Environmentalists cheering change that would limit growth of current Tideflats businesses

The Tacoma City Council will look at interim land use regulations for the Tideflats at its Tuesday meeting, with a vote expected next week.
The Tacoma City Council will look at interim land use regulations for the Tideflats at its Tuesday meeting, with a vote expected next week. Courtesy state Dept of Ecology

Proposed six-month land use restrictions for the Tideflats will be before the Tacoma City Council on Tuesday, and environmentalists as well as port of Tacoma businesses are expected to show up in force — again — to plead their case on either side.

The latest draft of the interim regulations holds a significant change that environmental advocates are cheering and some businesses are decrying: Existing heavy industrial uses would be allowed, but instead of the potential for unlimited growth, they would only be allowed to expand by up to 10 percent of their storage, production, or distribution capacity during the interim period, and would need a conditional-use permit.

A list of new heavy industrial uses also would be banned if the regulations are passed.

Groups like Citizens for a Healthy Bay are applauding the interim regulations, which have become stricter with an eye toward limiting fossil-fuel expansion as they’ve made their way through the Planning Commission to the City Council.

“What we’re seeing in Tacoma is unprecedented,” the group wrote in an email to its subscribers. “Because of your hard work, the Planning Commission recommended a balanced, effective fossil fuel pause.”

On the other side, some Tideflats businesses said they feel they’re under attack.

U.S. Oil & Refining spokeswoman Marcia Nielsen said the refinery, which has been operating on the Tideflats since the 1950s, already faces enough regulation.

“We’re so highly regulated by state and federal governments, what if new regulations come in that we need to comply with and we need to put in a new piece of equipment to comply with that regulation? How is that 10 percent going to come into play?” Nielsen asked.

She said the regulations could also put the company’s new renewable fuels project at risk, since it’s still making its way through the permitting process.

A spokeswoman for the Port of Tacoma did not return a request for comment. The Port has consistently pushed back against the interim regulations, saying they could hurt the Pierce County economy and are unnecessary because a more detailed, comprehensive guide to land use on the Tideflats — called a subarea plan — will soon be in the making.

The planning commission determined interim regulations were needed to keep new heavy industrial and fossil-fuel projects from getting their permits in under the wire as the lengthy subarea plan process is sorted out.

The council will have a first reading of the interim regulations, which would last for six months, on Tuesday evening. That means the regulations will be discussed, council questions will be answered by staff members, and the public will have a chance to make comments. The actual vote will likely take place Tuesday, Nov. 21.

The proposed stop-gap regulations are meant to be a placeholder while the city, the Port of Tacoma, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians and potentially other agencies begin the work of negotiating the subarea plan, seeking input from other community groups as well. That entire process could take three years, the city acknowledged in documents supporting the interim regulations.

As of now, an interlocal agreement between those major partners that will spell out responsibilities for each still hasn’t been hashed out. Before that agreement is finalized, work on the subarea plan process — expected to cost at least $1 million — won’t begin.

Here is a brief overview of the proposed interim regulations:

▪ Expanded notification for heavy-industrial projects. That means public notice for heavy industrial-use permits would be extended to taxpayers that are 2,500 feet, or close to half a mile, from the project property.

▪ New non-industrial uses in the port would be paused, and existing non-industrial uses would be considered nonconforming uses, meaning their ability to expand would be severely limited. Non-industrial includes all residential uses, care facilities, high-intensity parks or event centers, airports, hospitals and schools, as well as many other uses. This includes the privately run Northwest Detention Center, which houses roughly 1,500 immigrant detainees.

▪ The prohibition of new residential development, including the platting and subdivision of land, on the slopes above Marine View Drive. This rule wouldn’t be intended to stop existing developments from expanding, remodeling or adding accessory uses.

▪ A ban on new coal terminals and bulk storage facilities; oil or other liquefied fossil-fuel terminals, bulk storage, manufacturing, production, processing or refining; bulk chemical storage, production or processing, including acid manufacture; and mining or quarrying. Existing uses would be considered allowed (this includes Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant, which is under construction), but expansion would be limited to up to 10 percent storage, production, or distribution capacity while the interim regulations are in place, and would be subject to a conditional use permit.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud