Ruston vs. Point Ruston: Break up this fight

Here’s one of the region’s most baffling questions: Why is the Town of Ruston trying to sabotage the completion of Point Ruston?

The town’s relationship with the $1.2 billion project is so poisoned that the developers want out – literally out of Ruston. Forty-two acres of the retail-and-residential development lie within Ruston’s borders, and the Point Ruston people now want the adjacent City of Tacoma to carve those acres out of the town through annexation.

Under current law, annexation would require approval from the Ruston city officials. Mayor Bruce Hopkins says the town will fight the plan – so legislative intervention may be necessary. If it comes to that, lawmakers should craft a bill to fit the circumstances.

And these circumstances are strange. This is not your usual dispute between a real estate mogul and a local government that stands in the way of a fast buck. In this case, the public’s stake in the project’s completion is great, and the town’s actions are bewildering.

The 97-acre project sits atop a Superfund site – land badly polluted by heavy metals from Ruston’s long-defunct Asarco smelter. To a large degree, the development is the cleanup. Under a plan approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Point Ruston’s roads, residences, stores and walkways are designed to securely cap the polluted ground.

Then there’s the $31 million the City of Tacoma has invested in the project’s roads and utilities. If Point Ruston remains obstructed by the Town of Ruston, the development won’t be able to return that money. As Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello said, “They need to get building permits and get cranes in the sky to pay back Tacoma.”

Ruston officials – led by Hopkins – have not been forthcoming with those permits.

The developers, led by Mike Cohen, have had little trouble working with the City of Tacoma. They’ve jumped through the city’s regulatory hoops and hurdles, and Tacoma has issued permits accordingly. On its Tacoma acreage, Point Ruston is quickly falling into place.

But the Ruston side looks like – well, an abandoned Superfund site.

To all appearances, the town is deliberately trying to frustrate the project. Its officials have been sitting on permit applications; Point Ruston people say one key building permit has been languishing for four years now.

Last year, the town commissioned a 94-page “Planning/Zoning Review” that reads like a search-and-destroy mission.

The consultant discovered 90 ways the developers supposedly threatened to break their promises or violate the town’s codes. Some issues were theoretically significant, such as changes in building footprints. Others were exercises in micromanagement, such as demands for “colors which are muted natural or earth tones” and “decorative iron designs” on all driveway gates.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that all these issues are of great import to the citizens of Ruston. All the more reason to sit down and negotiate solutions.

That’s exactly what Ruston officials haven’t done. Sometimes, they employ the silent treatment.

The project seemed on the verge of a breakthrough in November, when Hopkins met with Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, Point Ruston leaders and others; the discussion appeared headed toward solutions. But when subsequent meetings were scheduled, Hopkins was reportedly a no-show. Back to the baffling impasse. As Strickland put it, “Ruston has gone silent.”

This can’t stand. Unless the log jam of permits breaks soon, the Legislature should provide the City of Tacoma with carefully tailored authority to win jurisdiction over this critical project. A $31 million public investment and a Superfund cleanup should not be held hostage by Town of Ruston for no discernable reason.