Frustrations over Tideflats, inaction in subarea plan process mark one-year anniversary

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. A year has passed since that process started with little action because no one can agree on the rules. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

The City of Tacoma is preparing to dive into the multi-year subarea plan of the Tideflats without the Port of Tacoma’s support or funding, after a year of inaction on even determining how the process would work or what other governments would be “partners” versus “stakeholders.”

Tacoma wants the Puyallup Tribe as a partner since much of the Tideflats fall within the reservation and any developments on the working waterfront must be done in “collaboration” and “consultation” with the tribe under the decades-old Land Claims Settlement. The port wants to add a seat at the planning table for Pierce County because of the regional significance of the industrial waterfront to commerce as well as to be consistent with its reading of the Land Claims Settlement. 

In rough terms, that would put the debate of the city and the tribe primed to champion more environmental restrictions, with the port and county siding more on job creation through looser restrictions. 

Tacoma City Council adopted a resolution last May to kick off the subarea planning process for the Tideflats. Press announcements from the city and port mentioned collaboration and partnership and transparency of the process soon followed. Some people even questioned the rationale of having 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 politicking started. Nothing substantive has happened since. Nothing. Well, patience has run thin, prompting the city to ponder just going it alone. A decision on what happens now could come as early as this week.

“This is all about making the port a vibrant and viable place,” City Councilmember Ryan Mello said. “I don’t know why they don’t want to get down to work. We have given them a long time to talk about these issues. They have been dancing around this for a year now.”

The announcement from a year ago outlined the issues and planned partnership between the city and the port to co-fund a subarea plan for the Tideflats and that starting the process would just require the formality of an inter-governmental agreement and the selection of a consultant to shepherd the process through the review and public hearing process. Those agreements were never signed. A contractor never hired. Public hearings never held as port and city staff shuttle negotiation terms back and forth as the months passed.

“The port has turned it into this huge thing with a whole lot of poison pills, and they know they are poison pills,” Mello said, noting that the port wants the subarea plan to go directly to the City Council for debate rather than through the usual process of being first reviewed for recommendations by the city’s Planning Commission. That, Mello said, would allow the port to dictate how the city makes zoning decisions. “At the end of the day, there is only one authority, and that is the City Council. The City of Tacoma is not going to cede its land-use authority to anyone.”

“Some in the community are asserting that the Port of Tacoma is opposed to having the Puyallup Tribe participate in the subarea planning process as a partner organization,” Port Commission President Don Meyer wrote to the city, outlining the port’s position. “I write you today to assure you those assertions are false. The port stands ready to support and participate in the Tideflats subarea planning process. …

We acknowledge the city plays a primary leadership role in the comprehensive plan adoption process. Yet, if the plan is developed in a way that any of the four governments could not live with, it would be a failed effort. That outcome would likely tie up the plan in litigation and challenges for years.”

Meyer’s letter then goes on to suggest that the city host a meeting of two representatives from the city, port, tribe and county to discuss basic questions about the subarea plan process, including which governments will play which role, how decisions would be made, what’s the projected budget and how an advisory group of stakeholders be selected.

The year-long stalemate doesn’t bode well for what was supposed to be a process that was presented as one that would be transparent, collaborative and efficient.

“I definitely didn’t think the process would be quick, but I didn’t think that even getting an agreement would take this long,” Citizens for a Healthy Bay Director Melissa Mallot said. “This is frustrating. The city should just move forward. They could do the subarea plan by itself. This is something that the community is absolutely hungry for.”

While the Tideflats certainly has county-wide, if not regional and state, impacts, Washington Environmental Council Puget Sound Program Director Mindy Roberts said that adding the county to the decision-making table would further bog down the process as well as set up clear winners and losers before the process even begins.

“That shifts the discussion with who gets the benefits and who pays the penalties,” she said, noting the lower life expectancy between people living near the Tideflats and those in other parts of the city.

“This is going to be messy,” Roberts said. “The subarea plan process will be messy.”

Ideally, the plan would start without a cloud of suspicion and controversy in the wake of the now-dead methanol plant and the ongoing protests about Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant under construction without all of its required permits, she said. But the year of inaction only makes that room-temperature discussion less likely.

“My fear is that this is already being set up for some behind-the-scenes discussions,” Roberts said, noting that the port’s demand of adding the county to the roster of planning partners is akin to stuffing the ballot box and then calling for a vote by an agency that has a less-than sparkling environmental history. “Frankly, we are still cleaning up the mess of decisions that the port made that were not in the best interest of the community.”

A subarea plan is meant to craft a vision of the area with clear zoning rules and procedures that will calm nerves and streamline processes because there would be a driving framework for future development and uses for the working waterfront.

“We need to have that discussion otherwise we are just going to keep having these whack-a-mole conversations,” she said. 

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