The city of Ruston wants to strike a deal with the city of Tacoma that would create a team of staff members from both cities to oversee permitting for the $1.2-billion Point Ruston development.
Ruston’s council voted unanimously Tuesday night to direct city staff to negotiate an interlocal agreement with Tacoma to provide a “consolidated regulatory approval process.” Any agreement would have to be approved by both councils.
“We aren’t giving up anything,” said councilman Jim Hedrick, who served as mayor pro-tem in the absence of Mayor Bruce Hopkins, who is out of town. “I think it changes the dynamic in that you would have the city of Ruston and the city of Tacoma simultaneously handling issues with a permit.”
The council’s vote was a significant move in the long-running dispute with Point Ruston LLC, a 97-acre mixed-use development envisioned for the site contaminated by arsenic and lead from the former Asarco smelter. The border of Tacoma and Ruston, a town of about 750 people, runs down the center of the development.
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For years, developers Mike and Loren Cohen have contended that the city of Ruston was intentionally stalling the project by refusing to issue permits. Ruston has contended that the developers were doing an end-run around the city’s rules by invoking a federal law that allows building without a permit if the construction is part of an environmental cleanup.
Anything built under that law still must meet the standard for a permit. Ruston says that’s not happening. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has said it is “gravely concerned” with the developer’s approach.
Last week, the city of Tacoma signaled that it is ready to talk about annexing 43 acres of the development. It’s now up to Ruston to decide if annexation talks start. But Ruston officials fear state lawmakers will intervene to remove their veto power over annexation if the dispute continues.
Some Ruston council members view the interlocal agreement as a way to backstop their permitting decisions.
“This is just a first step,” said Councilman Lyle Hardin, who has led the work on the interlocal agreement idea for several weeks. “We need to show the public and folks in Olympia that we’re bright, committed people.”
Hardin has been attending meetings convened by U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, to foster agreement on how to move the project forward. The meetings have been attended by representatives from both cities, the EPA and the developers, Hardin said.
Three Tacoma City Council members attended Ruston’s Tuesday meeting: Marty Campbell, David Boe and Lauren Walker. Boe and Walker were the two “no” votes on annexation last week. Both made brief remarks during the comment period endorsing the idea of an interlocal agreement.
“I think it could make things a bit easier on the political level as well,” Boe said, after introducing himself as an architect and not a representative of the council.
The interlocal agreement would not change the underlying differences in the cities’ codes and how they are interpreted, Hardin said. “Our planners, our inspectors, our engineers will be involved,” he said.
A team of people from both cities would present “a consistent front” to the developers, Hardin said, and might lead to changes Ruston has been requesting for years, including an amendment to the city’s code that would allow the developers to legally do some of the things they seem to have planned.
“We’re no longer going to have a situation where the developer can triangulate cities against each other,” Hedrick said.
Hardin agreed: “We think this will lead to changes in (the developer’s) approach.”
Loren Cohen could not be reached Tuesday night for comment.