Subarea planning group holds first official meeting

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The subarea plan for the Tideflats has started with the first meeting of the five-government group that will advise the city on crafting new zoning rules for the working waterfront. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger
The subarea plan for the Tideflats has started with the first meeting of the five-government group that will advise the city on crafting new zoning rules for the working waterfront. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

A panel of five local governments with direct interests in the future of the Tacoma Tideflats met officially for the first time last week to start the process of drafting rules, regulations and visions of what the working waterfront will look like for decades to come.

The working group includes two elected officials from each government: Tacoma, Fife, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Port of Tacoma and Pierce County.

Much of the meeting was to provide the working group with an overview of how the process will work, from setting up a framework that a future consultant to follow, to how the staff of each of the governments will work together on draft recommendations for the group to then consider how voting on those recommendations would be handled.

What was clear was that the five governments hope to work “collaboratively” in what will be a multi-year process. But much like the George Orwell book “Animal Farm,” where all animals were equal but some animals were “more equal than others,” some chairs at the subarea planning table sit higher than others.

The City of Tacoma, for example, has the legal authority over zoning issues within its boundaries, so the subarea plan recommendations and the daily work will flow through its Planning and Land Services Department, as the project’s lead agency, albeit shared with a staff committee made up of planners from the other governments. The five-government committee of local officials will have 45 days to get recommendations back to Tacoma’s planning department, proposed changes that are then forwarded up the review chain to the City Council for consideration. The timeline is meant to keep the process from stalling, as is the approval requirement of just three of the five governments – rather than a unanimous recommendation.

“We have to manage ‘not rushing’ with ‘dragging our feet,’” Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said, noting that inter-government communication will be critical since any recommendations from the five-government working group would have to then go back to each of the member councils for formal consideration.

On top of that official review for recommendations will be a 20-member stakeholder advisory board of businesses, surrounding governments and interest groups. Most of the interested parties have already been identified, but Tacoma, the port and the tribe will each select three representatives since those governments are funding the subarea plan. Tacoma and the port have pledged $500,000 each, while the tribe has approved $200,000 since most of the Tideflats falls inside its reservation.

The call for a subarea plan came after concerns following the heated battle years ago over the now-dead plans to build what would have been the world’s largest methanol refinery and also current concerns over Puget Sound Energy’s construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on the Tideflats. The furor over the plant centers on environmental concerns and the construction of an 8-million-gallon, fossil fuel facility at a time when science is urging alternative fuel sources to combat climate change borne from greenhouse gas emissions.

The next big step in the subarea plan will be finalizing the scope of work that would then lead to the selection of a consultant. That selection could come as early as April and provide a shepherd to guide the complex process through what could be a two- or-three-year effort.

In the meantime, most of the working waterfront is under interim regulations that restrict developments and expansions but must be reviewed and readopted every six months until the subarea plan is adopted and permanent zoning rules pass the City Council.

Noting that the process might take a long time and seem contentious at times, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier applauded the city for creating a collaborative effort that involves constant oversight by not only its subarea plan partners but from community members and stakeholders. He noted that it serves as a model for other large projects and issues facing the county by building trust and understanding among the different governments.

“We have a lot of other things ahead of us,” he said.

The next meeting of the five-government working group is tentatively set for Feb. 8.

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