Subarea plan inches forward after a year of silence

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Rising interest of the future of the Tacoma Tideflats in recent years prompted the City of Tacoma and Port of Tacoma to agree, in theory, to do a subarea plan for the working waterfront more than a year ago with little work to show for it. A gathering of port, city, county and Puyallup Tribal leaders this week broke through the stalemate with at least a draft agreement to take back to their councils. Photo by Steve Dunkelburger

After more than a year of almost complete silence following joint announcements that the City of Tacoma and the Port of Tacoma would embark on a subarea plan of the Tacoma Tideflats, the governments directly involved in the process finally sat down this week with a mediator to reach at least a draft of what would become a formalized agreement.

The yearlong stalemate doesn’t bode well for what was supposed to be a process that was presented as one of transparency, collaboration and efficiency.

“This is not a plan,” City Councilmember Ryan Mello said. “This is an agreement on how to start the plan.”

Of course, it is technically a draft agreement since the deal still must pass through three government councils and the port commission before any work can actually start. The subarea plan process could take several years, particularly since it has been more than a year without an intergovernmental agreement on how the process would even start.

All things seemed promising in May 2017, when the city and port mentioned “collaboration” and “partnership” and “transparency” as the idea of a subarea plan was first announced. Some people even questioned the rationale of the city enacting interim regulations against new fossil fuel developments in the Tideflats since the subarea plan would tackle such issues and would only take a short time. Then the reality of politics struck. The largest sticking point had been the debate of which governments would ultimately sit at the table. Tacoma wanted to invite the Puyallup Tribe, since the Tideflats fall within the reservation. The port wanted to add Pierce County because of the regional significance that the Tideflats area has on trade and job creation. All four agencies – city, port, tribe and county – will remain involved in the process. But now only three will share in the cost of the plan and just one – the City of Tacoma – will ultimately make the final decision about the plan, as outlined by state law, rather than having each government vote on its approval.

“There is no decision-making process we have to discuss,” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said.

The subarea review of the Tideflats will be driven by the city, with the port, tribe and county providing input and comments. The plan is expected to cost upward of $1.2 million. The port and the city will each pay up to $500,000, and the tribe will assist with up to $200,000.

A subarea plan is meant to craft a vision of the specific area through zoning rules and a framework for future development. Hilltop and the area around the Tacoma Mall, for example, have undergone subarea reviews. But this one will be larger and more complex particularly since the Tideflats mark the gateway to the fourth largest shipping terminal in the nation and sit so close to downtown and fall within the sovereign boundaries of the Puyallup Tribe. At issue is the balance between economic activity and the cost of those activities on the environment.

“There is no more room for that around here,” Tribal Chairman Bill Sterud said, noting the superfund sites that have not been completed and the level of pollution in the land and water caused by decades of industrial use. “It’s not going away. It could get worse … Our treaty is not going to allow you to make it worse.”

To that end, all sides of the subarea plan at this point agree that the plan should address environmental remediation of the industrial lands, transportation and infrastructure needs, economic prosperity for all and public participation in the future of the area.

The draft agreement on those concepts and the plan’s funding now go back for formal adoption by each respective government. That should take two or three weeks. Another gathering of the four governments will come after that to develop details and timelines for the plan’s scope of work.

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