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Chambers Creek resort lease approved after lengthy, contentious County Council meeting

Runners head toward the sound along Grandview Trail through the North Meadow at Chambers Creek Regional Park. The Pierce County Council authorized development of a resort on the property Tuesday.
Runners head toward the sound along Grandview Trail through the North Meadow at Chambers Creek Regional Park. The Pierce County Council authorized development of a resort on the property Tuesday. Staff file, 2010

It was never going to be an easy vote.

Five and a half hours after convening, the Pierce County Council voted 6-1 in favor of the county executive entering into a long-term ground lease with Chambers Bay Resort, LLC, for the development of a hotel and resort on a portion of Chambers Creek Properties.

Council member Connie Ladenburg was the lone “no” vote.

Before the vote, she offered a lengthy challenge to the measure, pointing to the council’s lack of information, particularly from the project’s financial standpoint, to make an adequate decision. She also offered survey results that showed an overwhelming negative response to the idea of people living in golf villas in the park.

“There are a lot of reasons a lot of people feel we shouldn’t go forward with this GLA as it stands right now,” she said.

“If we err on side of development, that error is permanent. There is no going back.”

Supporters of the plan pushed back with calls not to delay the project any further.

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The lengthy, contentious meeting, in which more than 30 people offered public comment, saw 19 amendments considered. Of those, 8 passed, 10 failed and one was withdrawn.

A motion offered by Ladenburg to continue the ordinance and postpone indefinitely failed.

The amended lease agreement, which now goes to County Executive Bruce Dammeier for signing and implementation with the local development team, includes:

No more than 190 hotel or golf villa units

Event and meeting space

New clubhouse and pro shop

Spa

Tom Douglas Restaurant (s) and bar(s)

Improved parking necessary to serve the improvements under University Place Municipal Code

Not more 239,000 square feet of total building space

A separate but related measure to launch an independent market analysis failed at a previous council session but was recommended for reconsideration at Tuesday’s meeting. This time around, an amended version of that proposal passed.

With this lease agreement, the county continues to be the property owner for all 930 acres of Chambers Creek Regional Park, including the Chambers Bay Resort project land, with permits for the project issued by the city of University Place.

Amendments imposing stricter limits on the development, such as limiting the number of villas to 90, eliminating long-term leases and prohibiting modifications to the existing trail system failed at Tuesday’s session.

As had happened in previous meetings, the villas remained the source of much of the angst.

“These will not be for tourists,” Ladenburg said, “but for the well-to-do to reside.”

She said the project was not considering elements of the master plan “or what the people want.”

After a short recess, the measure with its amendments faced a public hearing. Supporters of the development touted the development group’s local ties as longtime residents and their success with other projects. They also pointed to the opportunity for construction and hospitality jobs, along with helping the park in its finances.

“If not now, when? If not our team, who?” asked Dan Absher, one of the team’s developers. If another round of proposals was sought, “it would be another two to three years before you’ll be at this point again,” while the park’s “financial burden continues,” Absher added.

Greg Helle, another one of the developers, said, “ We are experienced and qualified; we know what it takes to bring this project.”

Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, also offered his support.

“This is a great public-private partnership. You’re taking about jobs, economy and a tax base coming together for a jewel in Pierce County,” Pierson said.

Opponents expressed deep mistrust of how the project has unfolded in the past four months. Residents speaking against the project cited an array of issues, including lack of transparency, a rush to approve the lease with not enough public review and input as well as lacking proper financial, environmental and traffic/parking analysis.

Concerns of rent on the property not following inflation also were raised, along with discounted rates and fees for developer and guests, and questions on whether some parts of the deal qualified as a gift of public funds.

“I watch the meeting and hear you say you’re doing the will of the people by voting yes,” one person said. “You’ve heard they do not want private development. You are setting a horrible precedent for every park.”

“The truth is spreading like wildfire, and it won’t be just us that’s outraged,” said another person. “You didn’t take the time to do this right.”

“This needs to be delayed,” said another. “I witnessed so much confusion in amendments terminology. I don’t feel everyone is on board with what’s happening. It needs to be reviewed. There are too many things in flux.”

Several council members also cited the lack of time for their own lease review after the executive’s office had spent much more time negotiating the deal and noted a lack of communications between the executive’s office and the council.

There also was acknowledgment by several council members that despite the fact they had misgivings about the villas becoming permanent residences, rejecting the plan would lead to another round of what could take years in getting to a new deal with another partner who would satisfy the demands of the project in a public-private partnership.

“This has not been an easy process or easy outcome,” said Council member Derek Young. While noting he believed the developers had the best intentions, “I still have remaining concerns and struggle to support this ... I am not satisfied by the process,” Young said. He added, “If I vote no then it will be years” before another project could take shape.

Council member Marty Campbell noted how the council had struggled with the lease’s terms given the number of amendments presented.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good — it’s not perfect, it’s good, hopefully we can get it to better,” Campbell said.

Council member Pam Roach challenged Ladenburg on a potential conflict of interest tied to her husband, former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg. At that, Connie Ladenburg and later her husband, speaking in the public hearing, took strong exception.

“My wife and I have never had, and do not have, any financial interest” with anyone in relation to the project, John Ladenburg told the council.

Hours later, as the meeting wound down, Roach said she wanted to end her comments after the public testimony on a positive note.

“We are going to have a wonderful venue,” she said before the vote, “Business is a risk; all business is.”

Council chairman Doug Richardson, in a statement issued after the meeting, said: “Over the course of the past four months, the Council has listened to the public, sought legal advice, and thoroughly questioned the developer to gain clarity on the specifics of the ground lease agreement. This project will enhance and continue to reinforce Chambers Creek Properties as a premier park, trail, golf course and County jewel.”

County Executive Bruce Dammeier said in a statement issued Tuesday night: “I’m very pleased Pierce County is moving forward. The new resort will be great for golfers, for those who enjoy the surrounding park, and for everyone who will use the new amenities. And, the public-private partnership will make the course financially stronger. Now, it’s up to the developers to secure financing.”

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