Ever wonder why so much of Pierce County looks so cluttered and junky? Why Meridian Avenue on South Hill is such a traffic nightmare?
You need to know some history – history that the County Council is trying to repeat.
Until the late 1980s, the county acted as a rubber stamp for real estate developers. Did they want to build seedy strip malls that will slow traffic in already crowded streets? If they had the money, they got the permit.
Did they want to build subdivisions that would stick the public with the cost of new streets, utilities and schools? Sure, said county officials, why not? Did they want to turn parcels into junkyards or other blights that would trash the neighbors’ property values? Heaven forbid the county should tell them what to do with their land.
Finally, the state Growth Management Act forced Pierce County to adopt a comprehensive land-use plan that, among other provisions, protected farmlands and industrial zones that would otherwise be nibbled to death by uncontrolled sprawl.
But those protections often stand in the way of profits, and they are always under siege. Three weeks ago, county Executive Pat McCarthy rightly vetoed a revised plan that included two blatant giveaways to developers. Both weakened safeguards against sprawl. The County Council should send the executive a clean comprehensive plan minus the special favors.
One giveaway would have reclassified 5.2 acres near Midland to allow a subdivision in a rural protection zone. This move would almost certainly be reversed by the state Growth Management Hearings Board – after the county squandered money on litigation trying to defend it.
The other giveaway would cause far more damage. It would appease a developer and a neighborhood in the Frederickson industrial area east of Spanaway by greatly expanding the existing limits on retail and commercial buildings. Stores in the affected zone, now limited to 60,000 square feet, could be built up to 175,000 square feet. Think of a Walmart instead of a Best Buy or large supermarket.
Because zoning changes must be adopted across the board, state law would require an identical expansion for all property in the county with the same retail-and-commercial zone. This isn’t the camel’s nose in the tent; it’s the whole camel.
The biggest problem is the potential snarling of Canyon Road when traffic starts backing up behind cars entering or leaving the lots of big boxes like Costco and Walmart.
Canyon Road is a crucial access corridor for the industrial plants at Frederickson. Any congestion on Canyon discourages investment in manufacturing in Pierce County.
Industry is the Holy Grail of economic development. Unlike retail, which recirculates money inside a region, manufacturing pulls money in from elsewhere, expanding the region’s wealth and tax base. And manufacturing jobs in Pierce County pay twice as much, on average, than retail jobs: $1,105 vs. $599 a week, according to a 2014 survey.
Sacrificing the public’s long-term interests for the sake of someone’s short-term profits is folly. The Pierce County Council used to do this sort of thing all the time. It shouldn’t get back in the habit.