A legislative effort to shift part of the Point Ruston development on Commencement Bay from the City of Ruston and into the City of Tacoma is working its way through the halls of the state capital.
House Bill 2880, championed by Tacoma’s 27th District Representatives Jake Fey and Laurie Jinkins and 29th District Representative Steve Kirby, received a hearing from the House of Representatives Local Government Committee last week and committee discussions Wednesday when it was continued until after press time on Thursday. The bill, and its sibling in the Senate, SB 6487, would shift the Ruston portion of the $1.2 billion residential and commercial development into the city limits of Tacoma. The 97-acre, waterfront site currently equally straddles the city borders between Tacoma and Ruston.
The move comes as the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between the project’s developer and Ruston over “unnecessary” permitting delays dating back years, leaving much of the site’s construction work largely only occurring on the Tacoma half of the property. The annexation push is strongly opposed by Ruston officials, calling it the use of a bullying tactics by one city – Tacoma – to seize a valuable tax base from a smaller neighbor – Ruston.
“The project must succeed for our city to exist,” Ruston Mayor Bruce Hopkins said. “There is no doubt about it. This bill does not present good government.”
The bill, he said, violates the state’s Growth Management Act rules regarding annexations by removing the requirement of a vote of Ruston residents and its City Council. The bill also removes the need for approval by the Boundary Review Board and could make it easier for other cities to do the same in future years.
For its part, Tacoma officials said the annexation effort is a last resort to protect that city’s investment of $31 million in Local Improvement District debt it fronted to install infrastructure at the development. Point Ruston needs the tax base in the development to move forward to pay back the remaining $20 million of that LID funding.
“This is an extraordinary circumstance,” former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “We are trying very hard to be good partners.”
Tacoma had tried to work out an interlocal agreement with Ruston during a similar annexation battle three years ago that would have had Tacoma handle the permitting process on behalf of its much-smaller neighbor. Ruston later dropped out of that effort.
Specifically, the legislation would allow the property owners of Point Ruston to petition for annexation into Tacoma without Ruston’s approval or a boundary review process with a deadline of 2021. Any future development would have to follow the current master plan for the site. Future land-use requirements and height restrictions must also remain consistent with prior codes and all back taxes must be paid before annexation is completed. After an annexation petition is approved, both cities must then submit to binding arbitration over future costs and tax revenues.
“The amount must be sufficient to maintain the city from which the territory is annexed as an economically viable city,” according to the bill’s summary.
Point Ruston is being built on the site of a copper smelter that dated back to 1888. It operated until 1985, leaving behind toxic soil around Puget Sound that was caused by the release of pollution from its smoke stack and is now being remediated. The commercial development of the land is part of that remediation process by returning the waterfront property into taxable retail, office, entertainment and residential uses.