A longtime Puyallup Valley daffodil grower and the warehouse developer he plans to sell to have secured a big legal victory against the City of Puyallup.
A Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled last week that the Puyallup City Council unlawfully targeted a swath of the former Van Lierop Bulb Farm when it approved rules last year restricting industrial development on the site.
Judge Elizabeth P. Martin ruled that the city’s land-use ordinance was a discriminatory spot-zone “aimed directly and solely” at the Van Lierop property.
She also ruled that the council violated the state Appearance of Fairness Doctrine in the vote approving the changes to the property at East Pioneer Avenue and Shaw Road.
The development overlay imposed strict standards on building height, parking and other design components in an area that the city previously had rezoned to allow warehouses.
Martin’s ruling strikes down the ordinance, stating that the overlay violates state law. She also wrote that the process by which it was approved violated the city’s procedures for rezone decisions.
Puyallup City Attorney Steve Kirkelie disagreed, arguing that the overlay added design standards for an entire area. It didn’t change how the land was zoned, he said.
“This was the City Council’s review of an entire area and making sure that the zoning and the development regulations for an entire area were compatible,” Kirkelie said. “The ordinance did not change the underlying zoning at all.”
The judge’s ruling is the latest twist in a longstanding land-use battle that spans two years and pits open-space advocates against surrounding landowners. It centers on the Van Lierop property, where Seattle-based real estate firm Schnitzer West plans to build a 470,000-square-foot warehouse.
Concerned residents have urged Puyallup officials to make sure only low-impact development is allowed in the area, which many consider a gateway to the city. Meanwhile, landowners have resisted what they consider inappropriate limits on private-property rights.
Schnitzer has an agreement to buy the land from Neil Van Lierop, one of the valley’s last two daffodil farmers, whose family grew and sold bulbs for decades.
The developer has a short-plat application pending with the city. Executives with Schnitzer say they filed the application to secure property rights under the original zoning regulations, which were changed in their favor in the controversial rezone vote in 2013.
Jeff Harmer, a senior investment manager with Schnitzer, couldn’t be reached Thursday for comment on the court ruling.
The overlay was originally created in 2009. The council voted last May to apply it to the Van Lierop property, which wasn’t annexed into the city until 2012. Schnitzer promptly filed its lawsuit last June challenging the expansion, even though the firm’s pending application exempted it from the new development standards.
The land has been at the center of a tug-of-war between shifting City Council majorities.
In 2013, the council narrowly approved the controversial rezone 4-3.
The rezone was favorable to Van Lierop’s plans to sell his farm. It streamlined two parcels that had different industrial zoning, creating a unified property that allowed for large-scale warehouse development.
Momentum shifted a few months later when two newly elected council members joined a pair of sitting council members in favor of halting development on the Van Lierop land and nearby properties.
That pause was intended to give the city’s planning commission time to review the proposal for stricter development rules. Despite the commission’s opposition, the council approved the changes.
Martin’s ruling acknowledged the “highly controversial” nature of the issue. She wrote that she understands “the desire of certain members of the City Council to carry out what they believed to be the wishes of their constituents to preserve beautiful agricultural land or at least prevent development of large warehouse structures.”
But what the city did with this property is consistent with spot-zoning, which the state Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled should be “universally condemned,” Martin wrote.
Kirkelie said city officials disagree with the ruling. He said a spot-zone happens when the character of one specific parcel is changed to make it incompatible with the surrounding area’s zoning.
“That is not what happened here at all,” Kirkelie said, stressing that the overlay applies to all the land zoned limited manufacturing in the Shaw-Pioneer area, both in the city limits and in the urban growth area.
Martin also noted in her ruling that some comments made during a Jan. 7, 2014, meeting highlighted the intent of some council members to limit development on Van Lierop’s land.
“The comments reflected in the transcript of that meeting make clear that stopping development on this particular property was the goal of the proponents of the moratorium,” she wrote.
At the very least, her ruling states, the comments surrounding the moratorium and council member’s remarks at subsequent meetings “raise an issue as to impartiality.”
Kirkelie said city officials will discuss next steps, including whether to appeal the judge’s decision.