Politics & Government

Tacoma postpones Point Ruston annexation vote

The Tacoma City Council on Tuesday put off a vote on whether to signal its willingness to annex 43 acres of the Point Ruston development now in the city of Ruston.

By delaying the discussion to Feb. 24, council members gave themselves more time to study what annexation might mean and gave the city of Ruston and the Point Ruston developers more time to come to an agreement.

Based on the mood of a well-attended Ruston City Council meeting later in the evening, the chances that council would agree to have the land carved out of the city seemed low.

“We told the Tacoma council tonight: Don’t even think about annexation,” Bruce Hopkins, the Ruston mayor, told the two dozen people in attendance. “I expect (the developers) to the do the right thing. I demand they do the right thing.”

The 97-acre development straddles the Tacoma-Ruston city line with about half in each city.

“This marriage is really over,” said Councilman Ryan Mello, who wanted to vote on the annexation request Tuesday. “I don’t think any amount of therapy is going to resolve the differences between Point Ruston and the city of Ruston.”

A yes vote from the Tacoma council wouldn’t annex that Ruston land right away. The city of Ruston’s council would have to vote yes, too.

Two Ruston council members and the city’s mayor urged the Tacoma council to vote against pursuing annexation.

Mike and Loren Cohen, the father-son developers of the Point Ruston site, laid out their grievances with Ruston in a 45-minute presentation to the Tacoma council. The younger Cohen did most of the talking.

Loren Cohen said he can’t go to Ruston with the expectation of getting a permit. Tacoma is another story.

“We had an expectation that was based on reality, that we could get a permit based on the code,” Loren Cohen said. At Tacoma, “There was a culture of yes.”

Tacoma council members seemed sympathetic to the Cohens’ plight in dealing with a small town that Loren Cohen said was not equipped to permit half of a $1.2 billion development on contaminated land.

Cohen said Ruston approved the master development plan. When asked by Councilwoman Lauren Walker if there had been any changes to that plan, Cohen said: “We have proposed no changes to the Point Ruston master development plan that was adopted by the town of Ruston.”

But Councilwoman Victoria Woodards pressed Loren Cohen: Why aren’t you sticking to the plan you initially agreed upon?

“Our fundamental belief and position is that we have proposed nothing that is not allowed under their code,” Loren Cohen said.

The few items built on the Ruston side have been started without Ruston permits, with the developers claiming they don’t need them under a federal exemption.

Ruston officials say even those few items deviate from the master development plan, not to mention changes to the layout of buildings and open space shown in the developers’ marketing materials.

In his remarks to the Tacoma council, Hopkins practically begged Cohen to ask for an amendment to the site plan. He said he would “love the power to say yes,” but the site plan is written into city law.

“Everyone is supportive of this project. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Hopkins said in Tacoma.

However, several Ruston residents told the Tacoma council that annexation is not necessary and that it would be the death knell for their tiny town.

Michael Schoenecker, like many Ruston residents, said he welcomes the development on Ruston Way, but he’s totally opposed to annexation.

“We believe that annexation is usurping the authority that we’ve given our elected officials,” Schoenecker said.

At the Ruston City Council meeting, emotions ran high. The themes were distrust of the developers, frustration with perceived condescension from the city of Tacoma, and disgust with The News Tribune’s coverage of the issue. For more than an hour, council members and citizens vented about how they believe their city and their mayor are being “vilified.”

The Cohens talked in Tacoma about the “culture of yes,” Hopkins told the crowd. “I was thinking “God, I wish I could say yes. Anyone want a permit? Yes.”

Several residents encouraged him to stand his ground.

“I’m not part of the culture of yes,” said Bradley Huson, a 20-year resident of Ruston and a former member of the council and planning commission. “I’m of the culture of playing by the rules and doing what you said you would.”

The state’s investigation involving a propane gas distribution system on the Ruston side, which the developer now says is abandoned, brought the most emotional reaction from councilman Jim Hedrick.

“My role is to protect public safety,” he said. He then read part of the state Utilities Transportation Commission’s letter of possible violations over a proposed propane distribution system, parts of which were installed without city permits. Hedrick said that plan, now withdrawn, included the installation of a 30,000-gallon propane tank.

“I’m not going to apologize to Tacoma, to Point Ruston, to The News Tribune, for not allowing that when it can hurt my citizens,” he said.

The room erupted in applause.

Hendrick wrapped up with conciliation.

“I will put this aside,” he said. I will sit down with the Cohen family and the Point Ruston team, because we can’t survive without them.”

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