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As decision nears on Chambers Bay resort lease, critics’ doubts over plans persist

KemperSports regional VP Matt Allen discusses long-term impact of new greens at Chambers Bay

KemperSports regional vice president Matt Allen discusses the long-term impact of the new poa annua greens at Chambers Bay on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 in University Place, Wash.
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KemperSports regional vice president Matt Allen discusses the long-term impact of the new poa annua greens at Chambers Bay on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 in University Place, Wash.

The long-term ground lease for Chambers Creek Properties to bring a resort hotel and golf villas to the popular park is up for final consideration at Pierce County Council’s May 7 meeting.

While development of this nature has been a long time coming, parts of the plan have attracted critics and led to packed County Council and committee meetings.

In some ways, the public hearings have been reminiscent of similar arguments raised in public meetings over the future of Tacoma’s Click Network.

The line of questioning from the public in both cases have been dominated by how exactly the public benefits in the proposed public-private partnership.

While that issue might seem esoteric if you’re not a Click subscriber, the effects of a Chambers Creek deal set to be sealed on Tuesday will be in evidence to anyone who goes to the park as the development takes shape.

One audience member testifying at the April 29 Community Development Committee meeting told the County Council: “I know the developers really believe in their heart that they’re going to provide a spectacular public amenity. The problem is, not all the public’s going to be able to use it. Those who can afford to use it will be able to use it.”

“It’s the issue ... of exclusivity,” he added.

The project is being developed by Chambers Bay Development, a group consisting of Dan Putnam, Greg Helle, Tom Absher and Dan Absher.

Dan Absher, speaking to the council April 16, called the developers a local “dream team that is invested in our community for the long term.”

“We committed to creating a first-class resort that would add to the legacy” of the park and golf course “while being good stewards of the local community and golf community,” he said.

As it stands now, the plan in the lease agreement calls for:

No more than 190 hotel or golf villa units

Event and meeting space

New clubhouse and pro shop (the “Clubhouse”)

Spa

Restaurant(s) and bar(s)

Publicly accessible outdoor amenities, including a new public plaza and enhanced recreational trails

200 parking spaces or the minimum required under University Place Municipal Code for the proposed project

Not more 239,000 square feet of total building space

The proposed lease is for 50 years, with an option to extend for five successive additional periods of 10 years each.

Among the issues that have drawn the most attention are the villas, which initially would be developed as extended stay resort rentals to help the property start generating funding toward the hotel development, with a conversion to daily units at some point.

Some residents are concerned it is a way for the developer to sneak a housing development onto public land.

John Garner represented Tahoma Audubon Society at the recent community development committee meeting.

After that meeting, Garner told The News Tribune he was “quite alarmed” by the project’s scope.

“While a hotel and restaurant were envisioned and popularly accepted, this ‘resort’ has morphed into what may become a 100-unit development,” he said.

In one of their written responses to proposed lease amendments submitted to the council committee, the developers noted: “We have every incentive to convert golf villas to daily rentals when the market supports it. ... Our strategy is (and always has been) to allow extended stay rentals to support the development until the hotel market is strong enough to support conversion.”

Other questions raised by residents have reflected concerns over the amount of parking and what happens with overflow events; the plaza/amphitheater’s location; and how trails would be affected by the development.

The fate of the ninth hole tee box also has consumed some of the discussion. (The 47:50 mark at this April 16 meeting link is the start of Putnam’s description of the work.)

“To say we are eliminating the ninth tees on the hillside is not accurate,” Putnam said at the council’s April 16 hearing. “During our negotiations with the prior administration, it was brought to our attention by staff that the hillside ninth tee boxes had issues and were open to modification or relocation.”

He went on to say that further action “will be a mutual decision by the county, developer and Kemper (managers of Chambers Bay Golf Course) in consultation with the course architect to determine what the best course of action is for this part of our project.”

The villas have brought the most prolonged discussions.

The initial developers’ proposal from July 2016 called for an 80-room boutique hotel and 80 golf villas. Two amendments presented Monday to the Community Development Committee to cap the number at either 90 or 100 failed.

The proposed lease agreement does not have a cap on how many in the 190-unit mix are villa units.

In their written response, the developers wrote in regard to a 90 villa limit: “When we convert the golf villas to nightly rental, we want the flexibility to change the two-bedroom villas into two, one-bedroom units. So, the 90-unit limit would be violated.”

The response went on to note the amendment’s language would make it “more difficult for us to convert the golf villas to nightly rental units.”

Both amendments limiting the number of villa units were rejected among a slate of 19 other amendments, the bulk of which also were rejected during the nearly four-and-a-half hour session.

Many of the amendments had been proposed by County Council member Connie Ladenburg.

One amendment that did pass addressed parking in its language for the developers in “constructing, maintaining and operating the Improvements consisting of a resort hotel, golf villas, restaurant, spa, event space, golf clubhouse, Golf Course support facilities, and parking necessary to serve the Improvements on the Property.”

The developers had listed that amendment as “acceptable” in their responses.

The developers noted in their response on the amendments they had marked as “unnacceptable” would be deal-breakers “without substantive revisions.”

“This GLA was the product of over two years of negotiations between two administrations of Pierce County Executives and Chambers Bay Development LLC,” the developers noted. “It complies with the Memorandum of Understanding for the development and the 2017 Master Site Plan Update previously approved by the County Council.”

The end goal for the county is that money generated from the resort would make the park fiscally sound.

Don Anderson, senior counsel to County Executive Bruce Dammeier, told The News Tribune editorial board earlier this year:

“The myth has been that Chambers Bay was paying for itself and the beautiful park. It’s never been true.”

A ground lease agreement information packet prepared by Anderson states that “the ground lease has the potential to substantially mitigate the ongoing financial burden the golf course imposes on Pierce County taxpayers and sewer utility ratepayers.”

According to the information packet: “The county’s investment in the Chambers Bay Golf Course is now nearly $40 million, exclusive of land. The $20.8 million bond debt has been paid down by $6 million. After accounting for debt reduction, golf course operations have lost an average of $1 million a year. Unattributed indirect expenses such as depreciation and administrative overhead make the true loss larger.”

The tax revenue and $450,000 minimum annual rent the project is set to generate, proponents say, will secure the park’s future.

Some, including Ladenburg, want more than just the developers’ analysis of the financial future for the site. Ladenburg, at the April 30 council session during the consideration of an outside market analysis proposal, offered her reasons.

“It was first asked orally to the county chair in January to have a market analysis done,” she explained, “followed up by one in writing I believe in February, and one followed up by staff I believe in March, and nothing happened.

“So now I’m here today, kind of at the last minute, but it’s not for lack of trying, with something formally to press the issue to either get it done or not. I want it public, that’s intentional. I think the public needs to see where we stand on getting this type of information. It’s a norm I believe in large transactions that a market analysis is done, not just on one side but on both sides.

“It’s our own due diligence that we provide this or at least go through this process to get information in order for us to make a good decision on this.”

Council member Dave Morell was one of the council members who spoke in opposition to the analysis proposal.

“These are good people,” he said.

“I am willing to support the company that has come forward. They have answered all the questions ... I don’t see any reason why we should have to continue to dig and dig and dig until we find something we can hang our hat on.”

The market analysis proposal was defeated, but then recommended for reconsideration at the May 7 meeting.

Critics of the development plan say their biggest fear is that the project could ultimately degrade the property.

“For many of us, there’s a concern that the expansiveness of the proposal is going to detract long term from the park land as an open space to visit,” Garner told The News Tribune.

Putnam is equally as strong in his conviction that it’s a plan worth doing, including in his remarks at the April 16 council session. He reminded everyone of his long ties to the community and to the park as one of its neighbors.

“Chambers Bay is my sanctuary,” he told the council April 16. “I’ve walked the trails more days than not, over 2,000 times. ... Our development team has approached this very soberly.

“Public-private partnerships are never easy,” he paused, adding with a chuckle, “Is that an understatement?”

“In this case it is going to be well worth it.”



MORE INFORMATION

Pierce County fact sheet on project: https://bit.ly/2GmOABJ

More information on the project, including a link to the draft lease agreement: https://www.piercecountywa.gov/4858/Chambers-Bay-Resort

County Council meeting: 3 p.m. May 7, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Room 1045, Tacoma

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