Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Is the county secretly creating a ‘City of Pierce’ from unincorporated areas?

Secrecy. Betrayal. Nefarious intentions.

To hear some residents of unincorporated Pierce County tell it, a recently uncovered plot to incorporate their communities into one, new monstrous city has all the components of a thrilling summer blockbuster.

County officials, on the other hand, grimace and call it a big misunderstanding.

And at the center of it all are three seemingly harmless words: City of Pierce.

That’s the surprisingly unimaginative and inflammatory name Pierce County’s Department of Planning and Land Services has taken to using when describing areas of unincorporated Pierce County that fall within the county’s urban growth area. This swath includes parts of South Hill, Frederickson, Parkland, Spanaway and Midland; the Planning Department is in the process of updating all of their long range community plans.

Cindy Becket, a 26-year resident of Midland and a former member of the Midland Land Use Advisory Committee, told me she first heard talk of the mysterious City of Pierce while watching a council committee meeting on television. She was aghast, and jumped into action — helping to organize a meeting in Midland earlier this month that she described as standing-room only.

“Every alarm bell in my head is going off right now, because this is outrageous,” Becket said when asked about what she sees as a clear effort by the county to force her community, and others, to incorporate.

And, in some ways, it’s true. Pierce County Councilman Derek Young says: “We’d like them to incorporate at some point.”

He adds, however, that City of Pierce is “internal vernacular” used only to remind staff of the county’s uniquely challenging planning responsibilities in these urban yet unincorporated areas — nothing more.

In other words, there’s no conspiracy to force incorporation, he promises.

But assurances like these haven’t stopped many from sensing a smoking gun. On Monday, concerned residents bombarded a meeting of Young’s Community Development Committee, convinced there was something foul afoot.

The outcry prompted a resolution “expressing county intent … to encourage annexation and incorporation of unincorporated urban areas” to be delayed at least a week, in part, said Young, so the county could do more education.

Where to start? While you could theoretically go back decades to trace the root of the growing mistrust, the easiest place is last year, when the Pierce County Council approved a 10-year update to its comprehensive plan — the document, required under the state’s Growth Management Act, that guides the county’s land use, growth and transportation decisions.

Under the Growth Management Act, the county’s updated comprehensive plan was next forwarded for approval to the Puget Sound Regional Council — a planning body that includes members from King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties that works to promote sustainable growth and reduce sprawl.

That’s where things get tricky.

In April, the county’s comprehensive plan received what’s known as a “conditional certification” from the PSRC — which determined Pierce County needed to do more to encourage cityhood in the unusually large chunk of urban growth areas in its unincorporated territory.

To get full certification, the body decided, Pierce County needed to demonstrate it had a plan to move toward incorporation or annexation.

Why bother complying? Without the blessing of the Puget Sound Regional Council, Pierce County risks losing out on federal grants for transportation. The agency effectively holds the purse strings on some $700 million in federal transportation funds throughout the region. Young also says the Growth Management Hearings Board could find Pierce County out of compliance, which could lead to “all sorts of state and federal funding” being jeopardized, for “everything from health and human services to parks.”

“We have a large unincorporated urban area, and (the PSRC) wants us to basically do more to try to affiliate. That’s not something you can do overnight. All you can say is we’re planning for it,” Young said. “We’re adopting this resolution saying ‘Yeah, we’re trying,’ but it’s not because we think anybody’s actually going to do this tomorrow.”

It’s perhaps worth noting the obvious at this point: Pierce County Council doesn’t have the power to wave a magic wand and create a giant new city. Incorporation would certainly help the county with challenges it faces in generating revenue and improving transportation in unincorporated urban growth areas. But incorporation can’t take place without residents of an affected area voting in favor of it.

Still, that hasn’t stopped some residents from unincorporated parts of the county — who, let’s be honest, have been wronged by decades of suspect or downright disastrous land-use and development decisions — from fearing there’s something more sinister in the works.

And it’s not hard to understand how they got there. While there’s a long list of examples, one need only recall last year when five members of the County Council, including a resigned Young (who, again, feared the loss of federal grant money) rebuffed Executive Pat McCarthy’s veto pen on the very comprehensive plan in question. The council permitted stores in Fredrickson to build monstrosities of up to 170,000 square feet — a decision that has the potential to turn Canyon Road into Meridian Gridlock Part 2.

In this case, residents question the authority of the PSRC to influence their future, believe a covert incorporation effort has been in the works for years and distrust county officials telling them they have it all wrong.

“It’s just hocus pocus,” said David Artis of Midland when asked about the county’s denials. “Everyone’s trying to backpedal.”

Or, as Becket put it to me: “We don’t want it to be a city. We want our communities to stay the way they are. That’s our right. They’ve started to try to bluff people, yourself included. We didn’t misunderstand at all. We know exactly what they’re doing.”

If there’s a lesson to be taken from any of this, it probably comes back to the name City of Pierce.

“It’s something the Planning Department came up with,” said Mike Krueger, the lead staff member on the Community Development Committee.

“It’s probably not a good label to use.”