Rare prairie at center of battle between industry and nature
Once again, a battle is brewing over a stretch of rare prairie land in Thurston County.
The Port of Tacoma has an offer on the table to sell its 745-acre Maytown site to a Kansas City-based company that wants to build a logistics center there.
By law, the port needs to divest itself of the property, which is outside its jurisdiction.
“The port is no longer in a position to own the property and is looking for a buyer who will add value to the community while protecting the financial interests of Pierce County residents,” Northwest Seaport Alliance public affairs director Nick Demerice told The News Tribune via email in response to questions about the property.
Conservationists are gearing up to fight. They contend the property is part of a little remaining prairie landscape and point out it is surrounded by undeveloped land and not far from Millersylvania State Park.
“We’re getting the band back together,” Sharron Coontz, an organizer with Friends of Rocky Prairie, told The News Tribune following a recent Port of Tacoma meeting where Coontz and other neighbors spoke out against the project.
The group similarly fought other efforts in the past to industrialize the property.
Another key player in the potential deal is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department has property adjacent to the site, and may or may not be able to expand into the Maytown parcel this time around, depending on negotiations.
Kansas City-based NorthPoint Development has offered the port $24.8 million for the tract, which at one time was part of an interlocal agreement between the ports of Tacoma and Olympia.
NorthPoint already has another parcel development in the works in Thurston County — three warehouses at 1.9 million-square-feet in Hawks Prairie.
Plans for the Maytown site call for a six-building logistics site, 2.9 million square feet for warehouse and distribution purposes, according to a development packet opponents received from the Port of Tacoma through a public disclosure request.
The port entered a purchase-and-sale agreement with NorthPoint on Dec. 20, after having a request for offers open from October 2013 to Nov. 15, 2018.
At its Dec. 20 meeting, the Tacoma port commission praised NorthPoint’s core values, which include, “Do the right thing every time.”
Chad Meyer, the company’s president and COO, made a presentation at the meeting.
“We think our core values speak a lot to what we do,” he said.
One sentence in his presentation seemed to recognize the property’s past and future battles.
“We are certainly aware there is going to be some sensitivity and some accommodation required to work well with the community,” Meyer said.
In 2006, the ports of Tacoma and Olympia agreed to jointly develop and operate what would be known as the South Sound Logistics Center on the Maytown property.
An interlocal agreement allowed the Port of Tacoma to buy the property; state law prohibits a port from operating in another port’s jurisdiction without authorization.
The Tacoma port purchased the site for $21.25 million and since has spent additional money in cleanup, monitoring and site work.
Amid reduced cargo volume and public opposition to plans for the site, the two ports dissolved their partnership in June 2008 when the interlocal agreement expired.
Legal wranglings continued after the Port of Tacoma sold the site to Maytown Sand & Gravel. That deal ultimately didn’t work out, and the company returned the property to the port.
Addressing the latest deal with NorthPoint, Tacoma port commissioner Clare Petrich noted at the June 13 port meeting that the Maytown site had a lengthy industrial past.
“Going back to the 1940s, up until 1993, a major part of this site actually was used for the manufacturing and distribution of munitions and explosives during the war,” she said. “... it was used for logging. It was also used for gravel mining. The property was sold again, was being mined in 2004, and at that time 2005, about 800 acres of this larger piece of property was actually sold to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. So they are using that particular property for conservation.”
The original agreement between the ports of Tacoma and Olympia still haunts Coontz.
“That port,” she said in reference to Port of Tacoma, “in 2006 came up with a plan to completely transform our county, and they are still trying to ruin our county, at our expense, with no repercussions to them, and it really strikes a chord down here and hurts people when they hear this. I get people asking me, ‘What the hell does Port of Tacoma have to do with us here? How can they do this to us?’ ”
Tacoma Port Commissioner Don Meyer at the commission’s June port meeting said he’d visited the site, and that it had resonated with him.
“Don’t think for one second that we don’t care about the environment,” Meyer said.
The problem at this stage, he noted, is that without an agreement with the Port of Olympia, “We’re going to have to sell this property — by law that’s where we’re at.
“I’m also sensitive to the idea of balancing environmental issues along with economic development issues.”
Commissioner Meyer encouraged NorthPoint to find a balance, with the expectation the process will take time.
“I think there’s a great opportunity here to find that balance.”
In 2010, Coontz and others pushed to have the area rezoned to one residence per 20 acres.
According to Coontz, NorthPoint’s attempt now at rezoning for industrial uses would shift the area to “completely the other end of the spectrum,” density-wise.
The Thurston County Board of Commission has pushed the rezoning decision into next year.
On July 3, Coontz was organizing a petition drive she and others planned to launch at the Tumwater Fourth of July parade to help get the word out about the rezoning.
She said she knows any effort is a race against time. The port has extended NorthPoint’s feasibility study to February, and the company needs the rezoning before the parties move forward with the sale, set to close in August 2020.
Meyer, NorthPoint’s president, in December talked about the company’s current development of five inland port facilities in conjunction with the BNSF railroad.
He made mention of companies with which NorthPoint has developed strong relationships. General Motors was one. Amazon was another.
“The reason we are here today is we understand how important port infrastructure and the ability to support intermodal traffic and freight movement (are),” said Meyer, citing BNSF as a stakeholder partner in its Maytown project.
Meyer said NorthPoint handled $800 million to $950 million in private development contracts annually and offered many benefits in taking on the site.
“As a private company, we can partner in unique ways with communities,” he said.
No word yet on who might use the logistics center, but in the Maytown packet, NorthPoint shows a past client base that includes GM and Amazon, Home Depot, Ford, Staples, UPS and more.
According to the port’s meeting memo of June 13: “The development of this property after the sale closing is expected to produce hundreds of new local Thurston County jobs.”
The exact number of the jobs that would come to the NorthPoint site, though, has not been announced.
A page in the Maytown project documents titled “Community Benefits” states the project “will create new jobs with anticipated hourly wages averaging (about) 20 percent higher than retail and restaurant hourly wages.”
Other benefits, according to the document, would include property tax revenue to benefit local schools and the community, a planned workforce training center “in partnership with local municipalities” and local infrastructure improvements.
NorthPoint’s Meyer elaborated on the benefits at the December port meeting.
For Maytown, he said, “This offers a great opportunity to keep those jobs here locally, and, as we’ve done with other port projects with BNSF, we’re certainly committed to setting up a workforce training center.”
Coontz is not alone in her opposition to the project.
Joining her in a recent interview with The News Tribune were Elizabeth Rodrick, vice president of the Black Hills Audubon Society and certified wildlife biologist, and Diane Sonntag, one of the founders of Friends of Rocky Prairie.
“We just feel such a deep responsibility to this land,” said Sonntag, once lived near the property. “I have done a few things before, but when I saw this little article about the site and what was going to happen (back in 2006) ....”
“We thought that because this was 2.5 miles from the interstate .... we thought, we’ll be able to stop this. We were going door to door.”
In that area, she noted, that means going mile to mile.
“Back then, there were elderly people, people didn’t really know what was going on, and this time, everyone knows,” Sonntag said. “People are shaking my hand, giving me hugs. The demographics, these sites have been bought by younger people who see it as their dream places away from the big traffic in Olympia.”
More than one opponent who had made the trek from Thurston County to the Port of Tacoma meeting in June talked about losing the quality of life they’d bought into in the area.
Rodrick recently led a reporter on a tour of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 800-acre West Rocky Prairie Wildlife Area, which is next to the port’s acreage. She waded through tall grass to show a wetland portion that’s home to frogs and other native species.
“The Deep Lake area is ... connected to the Beaver Creek area and Allen Creek, where the development is proposed,” she said. “Audobon already has stated to the county that we think their action of rezoning to industrial could possibly influence the survival of the endangered species there and put them in jeopardy.”
Oregon spotted frog, aquatic plants, the Mazama pocket gopher, and several butterfly species are of great concern, she said.
“It’s one of the worst places you can imagine to try and put an industrial development with that much rich biological diversity that’s so rare, not to mention the mounded prairies,” Rodrick said.
During the tour, she pointed out wild cucumber growing in some spots, with fat, oval-shaped cukes mostly consisting of large seeds and little food.
“A creature’s been nibbling on this one,” she noted.
In a letter of testimony submitted June 13 to the port on behalf of the Black Hills Audobon Society, Rodrick wrote: “The responsible solution is to sell this property to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which will double the size of the State Wildlife Area, and allow restoration of unique mounded prairie and oak woodland habitats and recovery of several threatened and endangered species.”
In the testimony, she made mention of a recent WDFW grant proposal for the site.
“According to a 2016 WDFW grant proposal, glacial outwash prairie is extremely rare with only 20 such areas in the world. Rocky Prairie is one of five remaining quality examples in Washington,” Rodrick wrote.
The port “paid Tacoma city prices for Thurston County rural property,” Coontz said. “On the other hand, they’ve already received $8 million in the lawsuit with Thurston County. They received another million from Maytown Sand & Gravel ... you add that to the $4 million or $5 million in Fish and Wildlife’s grants ... .”
She shook her head.
The port, she said, “would do fine to take the money and just go with that and do the right, sensible thing.”
As for any current efforts to gain a portion or all of the property, a spokeswoman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife told The News Tribune via email that the department “cannot release any information at this time regarding the appraisal since we are still in negotiations with the landowner.”
Coontz inherited a house that overlooks Deep Lake near the Maytown site, and her cousin owns more than 800 acres shown on a map as the McIntosh Family Tree Farm, bordering the port’s land.
The map shows the port property as an oddly shaped island surrounded by parkland, undeveloped acreage and a protected wildlife habitat.
Opponents have reached out to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office for help, hoping to appeal to his sensitivity to climate and the environmental issues they believe are at stake in this case.
Jaime Smith, executive director of communications for Inslee’s office, confirmed that opponents had “met with our staff and updated them on the issue, though they didn’t have any specific asks other than simply wanting us to be aware of the proposal and the community’s efforts.”
Smith also noted: “There is no current or pending state action or role in this project. It’s not clear at this point whether any of our agencies would become engaged. It’s going to require approvals from local jurisdictions following local land-use and environmental reviews.
“That review process should include a look at whether there are endangered species issues, adverse impacts and necessary mitigation, etc.”
Both Pierce and Thurston County have seen rapid growth in logistics sites.
A data sheet created by the Tacoma-Pierce County Economic Development Board lists the Puget Sound area as the second-most concentrated distribution center locale on the West Coast, with 47,800 regional workers involved in transportation and material moving.
Patrick McCourt of NorthPoint Development told the Port of Tacoma commissioners at their June meeting, “There are benefits to the project.”
After hearing opponents speak, McCourt added, “Somewhere in there, there is a compromise, I would hope, and I would think.”
He acknowledged there had been some communication with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We’re not certain where those conversations will go, but we hope those would result in a positive outcome for all parties,” McCourt said.
While he did not offer specifics on the numbers of jobs coming with the project, he added: “Yes, automation is coming, and someone has to keep the automation running. It may not take as many bodies, but it does take technical bodies and high-paying jobs.”
NorthPoint wasn’t the only one touting its benefits at the June port meeting.
Kevin O’Sullivan now directs the Tenino Food Bank and has formerly served as Thurston County commissioner and assessor and is a retired police officer O’Sullivan told the port at the meeting that the development was desperately needed.
“We are seeing our numbers continually growing. And the reason we see those numbers growing is because we don’t have jobs. We actually have in the Tenino School District homeless children,” O’Sullivan said. “If you don’t give people opportunities for jobs, for growth, to have insurance, be able to buy their food, you don’t have a community.”
“I am urging in the best interest of the community that you support the sale of this, and the Tenino Food Bank would thank you tremendously.”
Opponents remain unconvinced that promises made now will be kept when it comes to jobs and benefits.
Coontz pointed to a January New Republic article about what one logistics development brought to a small Illinois community outside of Chicago and the town’s battles with NorthPoint.
What she’s learned, she said, showed “what happens to these communities that buy into this idea that you’ll have jobs” and improved infrastructure.
“These communities are ... heartbroken.” Coontz said. “All those trucks .... they just chew up the roads.”
Sonntag also worries about light pollution.
“Have you seen these inland ports at night?” she asked.
NorthPoint’s Meyer offered a different picture in December.
He told the port commissioners that his company was “nimble and solutions oriented,” while noting that one of the company’s core values is “live generously.”
“It’s easy to put words on a page, but as anybody who works with us would attest, we actually walk the walk. We are proud of our Midwestern values,” he said. “’Living generously actually shows up on every employee’s bonus review at the end of the year.”
“We look forward to being good corporate citizens.”
The time line for the project has been adjusted, most recently at a June 13 Port of Tacoma meeting when NorthPoint asked for an extension to Feb. 29, 2020 for its feasibility period, as it seeks a rezoning of the property, with a closing date no later than Aug. 31, 2020.
For now, small signs against the development already can be spotted along Tilley Road outside the state park.
“Protect Millersylvania State Park.” they read, with the words “Industrial rezone” crossed out and a link listed to the Friends of Rocky Prairie’s website: http://friendsofrockyprairie.org/
Coontz said she spends “all day and into the night” focused on NorthPoint. Rodrick, other Audubon members and Sonntag help out along with others. The effort has taken many public records requests, doorbelling, online outreach, meeting attendance, they said.
“We’re re-doing the mailing list, and it’s growing,” Coontz said.
Their initial organizing in the 2000s, she recalled, ‘”was before social media.”
“It took me awhile for this new round to sink in ... Back when I still had a life,” she added. “I think initially I was in denial, I just couldn’t believe it, and thought, ‘Oh my God, here we go again.’”
How this new battle is resolved depends on many factors — including whether rezoning happens, whether the Department of Fish and Wildlife gains some or all of the property and how NorthPoint ultimately proceeds.
The port is holding firm that this is a deal that still could greatly benefit both counties.
Demerice of the Northwest Seaport Alliance told The News Tribune: “The port has long believed this property can be a valuable part of the logistics industry. Providing family wage jobs, economic impact to the region in wages and tax generation.”
Negotiations will mean overcoming the deep mistrust that lingers among opponents from the past proposals. Anything short of converting it all to a nature preserve remains a tall, if not impossible, order from the perspective of those opposed.
As for outreach efforts, the Seaport Alliance’s Demerice said: “The port has properly noticed all actions and discussed the project publicly many times.”
“NorthPoint will discuss their specific plans with the community in future meetings.”