Politics & Government

Lawmakers add to pressure in Point Ruston dispute

State lawmakers inserted themselves Tuesday into a squabble between the $1.2 billion Point Ruston waterfront development and the city of Ruston, population 749.

Developers are building apartments, condominiums, stores, restaurants and a hotel on the site of a shuttered copper smelter that has one foot in Ruston and one foot in Tacoma, population 203,446. Developers want Tacoma to extend its borders to take in the whole 97-acre site.

Under state law, annexation requires the blessing of both municipalities, which Ruston doesn’t want to give. That’s where the Legislature comes in.

Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, says he does not want to resolve the dispute with a bill. But just in case that becomes necessary, he filed a bill Tuesday. It’s meant to be a placeholder while all parties involved keep talking, he said.

“It would be nice if they could come to an understanding,” Fey said.

Backing the bill is Point Ruston, which contends the city of Ruston has delayed or refused to make land-use decisions on the development, sometimes for years. The city and federal environmental officials say the developer is ignoring city building codes.

Ruston City Councilman Jim Hedrick said the Legislature should stay out of “a local land-use decision.”

Representatives from Tacoma, Ruston, Point Ruston and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met for 21/2 hours Monday, Hedrick said.

“I think we’re going to get there,” he said. “I think this bill is somehow a credible threat to keep us at the table. We’re at the table.”

“If the credible threat of annexation is what it takes to ensure Ruston begins to act like a more ordinary municipality,” countered Loren Cohen, the legal representative for Point Ruston, “and they begin to work toward our success as opposed to hindering our project, then annexation is the path that we’re determined to undertake.”

Fey’s House Bill 2074 is what’s known as a “title-only bill” — a sort of empty container. It has a title related to the type of annexation that applies to Point Ruston, but no other text. If it were passed into law as written, it wouldn’t do anything.

Title-only bills provide lawmakers a way to get around their deadlines. Feb. 20 is the first of several deadlines for bills to advance through the legislative process. By creating and potentially advancing an empty vessel, lawmakers can later fill it up with anything they want.

As envisioned by Point Ruston, the finished bill would apply narrowly to Ruston, Cohen said.

The developers’ synopsis of their proposal sets a series of conditions that would apply only to their site.

They assured the mayor of at least one other small city that the bill wouldn’t affect other towns and cities. But Mayor David Viafore of Fircrest, population 6,613, said he has talked to Ruston officials, too, and he’s concerned.

“Ruston’s side of the story is, if they can do it to us, they can do it to the rest of you,” Viafore said.

Three other House Democrats co-sponsored the bill: Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma, David Sawyer of Lakewood and Steve Kirby of Tacoma.

The Association of Washington Cities has influence any time lawmakers talk about annexation, and AWC chief lobbyist Dave Williams said the association is wary of the Legislature getting involved in local matters like this one.

“I hope it doesn’t come to the point where the Legislature looks at this,” Williams said, “because we think there’s the ability out there right now for people to resolve differences.”