A long-disputed warehouse project on Shaw Road has become the focal point of Puyallup’s City Council races, with outside money pouring thousands into campaign outreach.
A political action committee, Friends of Puyallup, has raised $62,200, according to Public Disclosure Commission filings. Of that, businesses with a vested interest in the development of farmland outside of city limits donated $55,200, or 89 percent.
Knutson Farms Inc. and Running Bear Development Partners LLC, two entities who fought alongside Pierce County to allow the warehouse proposal, have given $35,000 to the PAC, according to PDC filings.
The Washington Association of Realtors, who submitted an amicus brief in support of the developers when the fight went to court, have donated $10,000.
The Neil Walter Company has created a site to sell the development. The real estate company has contributed $5,000 to Friends of Puyallup, according to the PDC.
Charla Neuman, the spokesperson for Friends of Puyallup, said she understands how people can conclude the PAC is tied to the Knutson warehouse proposal, but the PAC represents any business disgruntled with Puyallup.
“We do have a number of people who have contributed. It’s just some like (Knutson Farms) have been hit harder by Puyallup’s negligence than others,” Neuman told The News Tribune.
Neuman referenced Puyallup spending taxpayer’s dollars on homelessness lawsuits, the Conway case, when the city terminated Conway construction in the middle of a project to widen 39th Avenue Southwest, and the warehouse lawsuit as “bad behavior.”
Much of the funding has gone to unseat Mayor John Palmer, according to the PDC filings. Palmer ran for council eight years ago spearheading the campaign against warehouses on Shaw Road. As a council member, Palmer has been vocal and persistent in his push for the city to take the lead on permitting for the seven-warehouse proposal.
At least five mailers from Friends of Puyallup or The Washington Association of Realtors have gone out to District 2 residents supporting Palmer’s opponent, Paul Hererra. The flyers focus on Hererra’s military background, community service and economic growth. Hererra’s platform looks to create “a new welcoming business environment that will bring additional local family wage jobs to our community,” according to his site.
“Paul wants to create a thriving, safe Puyallup that attracts small businesses to come and grow so the next generation can succeed here — at home,” a mailer paid for by The Washington Association of Realtors.
One of the mailers attacked Palmer’s voting record.
“Tired of millions being spent on frivolous lawsuits, increased water and sewer rates and a generous severance package to a city manager who resigned?” the mailer stated. “The Bottom Line. We Can’t Afford John Palmer.”
Hererra did not respond to requests for comment on the PACs supporting his campaign.
Friends of Puyallup also has paid for consultant work and phone polling, according to PDC filings.
Palmer said there is no question about it, the outside money is directed at the warehouse project.
“It’s a war chest. I don’t think there has ever been this kind of money poured into Puyallup,” Palmer told The News Tribune. “They are basically supporting three candidates. Coming on the heels of the court decision, they are looking at different ways to get their project.”
Candidate Curt Gimmestad is running in District 3. He is the vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Washington Builders, a PAC that has donated $5,000 to Friends of Puyallup. Gimmestad addressed voters in a Facebook video on his warehouse views.
“I don’t like the idea of warehouses anymore than most feel in this city, and I believe the city has the right to understand the environmental impacts as it relates to infrastructure and how that would deal with traffic,” he said in the video. “I also believe property owners can develop their property in the confines of the allowed use, and the development requirements.”
The crux of the issue
The dispute stems from a proposal to develop the Knutson Farms, once a daffodil bulb farm in unincorporated Pierce County, into a seven-warehouse site.
Knutson Farms is on Shaw Road and borders Puyallup. In 2014, the owner, Roger Knutson, began talks with Pierce County, and the farm was rezoned as an “employment center” for a proposed 2.6-million-square-foot warehouse project.
The site would bring hundreds of warehouse jobs.
The proposal also is estimated to bring 2,000 tractor-trailers through Puyallup daily, Palmer said.
Puyallup officials are concerned about traffic problems and needed mitigation, including water and sewer service needed for seven warehouses, floodplain and stormwater management and interference with the connection to the nearby Riverwalk Trail.
Due to the perceived stress on city resources, Puyallup argued in court for the right to study the impacts and issue permits for the project, even though it is outside the city limits.
The Washington State Court of Appeals ruled in April that Puyallup could take the lead on the proposal and had the right to perform an environmental impact study. Pierce County appealed the decision, but the Washington State Supreme Court declined to hear the case in September, allowing the lower court decision to stand.
Puyallup resident Chris Chisholm has started a grassroots online campaign to raise awareness of the outside money flowing into the races.
He created a Facebook page, “The Real Friends of Puyallup,” and a website. The small business owner restarted a PAC he created four years ago, Puyallup Voters for Integrity, and has raised about $500, he said.
Chisholm and friends did a Facebook live to show voters how busy Shaw Road already is in rush-hour traffic. They also talked about the background on the farmland and the lawsuit.
A Change.org petition posted on Oct. 16 has more than 3,600 signatures to stop the seven-warehouse proposal on Shaw Road.
Chisholm said he has stopped everything else to focus on a counterattack.
“To respond to such a big force that is coming in to buy off Puyallup politics,” he said. “I knew it was all or nothing. I knew it would take a big effort.”