In the coming weeks, the Tacoma City Council will have to decide whether it wants to keep, modify or get rid of the interim rules it passed last month severely restricting where public correctional facilities in the city can be, and banning private ones.
The regulations overstep the city’s authority, according to Geo Group, the company that runs the federal immigration detention center on the Tideflats. The council’s move was meant to keep the Northwest Detention Center from expanding or adding capacity to its roughly 1,575-bed operation, which has drawn opposition from those who don’t think such a facility should exist in Tacoma.
The vote on the interim regulations also served as a political statement reaffirming the council’s commitment to being a Welcoming City and rejecting federal immigration policy and anti-immigrant rhetoric from President Donald Trump.
Geo Group has argued that the Northwest Detention Center is an essential public facility under state law, and as such can’t be outlawed by city land-use laws. City legal staff agreed.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Geo agrees with the city’s lawyers and planners in recognizing that they have previously identified the Northwest Detention Center as an essential public facility, and therefore it is not subject to the types of regulations they initially proposed,” the company said in a statement.
Essential public facilities provide public services and are difficult to site, including operations such as airports, mental health, and state or local correctional facilities, according to the city. They can’t be banned through Tacoma’s comprehensive plan or development regulations, but their siting and permitting can be regulated.
Because the Northwest Detention Center has been deemed an essential public facility, city legal staff have recommended the council tone down its original rules: They suggested allowing both private and public correctional facilities in certain zoning areas, and requiring a conditional use permit for any expansions or modifications to existing facilities that would increase inmate capacity.
The need for a conditional use permit would also be triggered if an existing facility wants to grow by more than 10 percent.
Given that they are an essential public facility, the word ‘essential’ doesn’t mean that you get to forsake the word ‘public’ in your process, so we’re really just making sure it’s in there so there is opportunity for public in the process
Councilman Marty Campbell
“I think we’re looking at probably following staff’s recommendations,” said Councilman Marty Campbell, who sponsored the original rule. “I think staff has done a good job of looking at the intent of what the City Council said and pairing it with what is feasible.
“Given that they are an essential public facility, the word ‘essential’ doesn’t mean that you get to forsake the word ‘public’ in your process, so we’re really just making sure it’s in there so there is opportunity for public in the process.”
The council’s interim regulations were the subject of heated debate within the planning commission, and after hours of discussion that body wasn’t able to reach a consensus. It didn’t make a recommendation to the City Council on how it should move forward.
Chairman Chris Beale apologized to the City Council at its study session last week for not reaching an agreement.
“This has probably been the most contentious discussion that I’ve seen in my six years on the planning commission,” Beale said.
But the commission did agree that the council needs to determine the legal risks of splitting public and private correctional facilities into two categories, and regulating them separately.
And it agreed that the issue of whether correctional facilities and other nonindustrial uses are appropriate for the Tideflats should be taken up in the long-term discussion about that area’s future, which could include a sub-area plan process, or a more limited review of specific land uses, as proposed by Councilman Ryan Mello.
While members of the council have repeatedly expressed unease with the detention center’s existence in Tacoma, Mayor Marilyn Strickland conceded at a study session last week that it’s a complicated issue. She said she was approached recently by two people whose spouses or partners are being detained at the center.
“If we shut this down, they’d have to go to California or Texas or another place, and they would not have access to their loved ones,” Strickland said. “So there are many dimensions to this conversation that many of us don’t consider because we don’t have relationships with people who are detained.”