Planning Commissioner Diana Noble-Gulliford speaks at the March 19 Federal Way City Council meeting about her concerns over perceived pressure from city staff regarding the 324th Comprehensive Plan amendment. Photo courtesy of Bruce Honda

Planning Commissioner Diana Noble-Gulliford speaks at the March 19 Federal Way City Council meeting about her concerns over perceived pressure from city staff regarding the 324th Comprehensive Plan amendment. Photo courtesy of Bruce Honda

City’s process to accommodate DaVita draws concerns

Mayor, deputy mayor clash over letter to DaVita; commissioner feels threatened by city staff.

Before Federal Way City Council member Dino Duclos asked the mayor and deputy mayor to “stop the bickering,” the two had a heated exchange over a Comprehensive Plan amendment during the March 19 meeting.

The tension was over a discussion about the city’s process to potentially construct 324th Street.

The city’s original Comprehensive Plan had the road cutting through the plot of land DaVita purchased from Industrial Realty Group, LCC (IRG). But at DaVita’s request, the amendment would move the alignment of 324th Street around their site so it would not impact the company’s plans to construct their newest office space in the city.

But council members, a Planning Commissioner, residents and IRG have expressed concerns over the city’s process to move the amendment forward.

Deputy Mayor Susan Honda said the process started two years ago, even though the council was unaware when it began. She brought up a letter during the meeting that Mayor Jim Ferrell wrote to DaVita officials on March 27, 2017, which said the road construction would not affect their office space.

“Enclosed is a diagram that illustrates the realignment of the road,” Ferrell said in the letter. “It is now aligned as straight from the east side of Interstate 5 to Weyerhaeuser Way South. There will be no traffic circle through your proposed development as previously illustrated.”

However, as Honda brought up the letter, Ferrell interrupted her.

“You and I talked about this, and now you’re gonna make it sound like I wrote a letter and just allowed this to happen,” Ferrell said to Honda. “It’s a misrepresentation.”

Honda responded: “You have not let me finish what I was going to say. May I continue?”

She proceeded to say the process for the Comprehensive Plan amendment started in 2017, but the council wasn’t informed until recently.

“I’m hoping that if other companies are watching this and they’re planning to come into Federal Way… that [the city] will do this kind of work for them too, because we need to be fair,” she said.

Honda said she recognized the value of bringing businesses like DaVita to the former Weyerhaeuser campus, but was concerned about the process this particular situation seemed to have taken. She also explained why she decided to bring up the letter at the meeting.

“It seems to be an elephant in the room,” she said, addressing the mayor. “I did not accuse you or say that you did anything wrong. I brought up the letter, and I certainly don’t mean to upset you but it is an elephant in the room.”

Ferrell replied, “And you failed to mention in that reference that what we provided to them was a three-page document that outlined the permitting process.”

Honda replied, “You didn’t let me because you interrupted me, mayor.”

Before moving on to the rest of council discussion, Ferrell said the letter he wrote did not favor anyone, but rather was a way to try and accommodate a business that wanted to come to the city.

“We were trying to accommodate DaVita to save 1,000 jobs for this community.”

He said the “‘elephant in the room’ is that we’re trying to have economic development … that’s why I had a reaction to it.”

During a followup interview on Monday, Ferrell said he was surprised and disappointed Honda brought up the letter after they had spoken about it before the meeting.

“People don’t react well to being surprised,” he said. He added Honda’s motivation for bringing up the letter was to “score political points at my expense.”

Ferrell noted that the March 2017 had no legal impact, and DaVita was going through the city’s normal processes.

The mayor also responded to a drafted copy of his March 27, 2017 letter that director of economic development Tim Johnson sent to DaVita’s senior director of real estate development Arthur Richey on March 23, 2017. In that draft letter, Johnson said that Richey could make any changes to it he wanted and Johnson would get it turned around immediately before the mayor sent the final letter to DaVita.

Ferrell said he stood by Johnson’s actions in that email.

“As Tim’s boss, I don’t see any problem with that.”

Council member Hoang Tran also took issue that the mayor did not notify the council about the 2017 letter until shortly before the March 19 meeting. Tran told the Mirror if Ferrell wants the council to be an equal partner with him, he needs to communicate more openly with the council about these situations.

Council member Jesse Johnson criticized Ferrell’s actions during the meeting and told the Mirror the mayor needs to understand his elected position is not mean to act as an eighth council member.

During council discussion with DaVita’s senior director of real estate development, Richey, who answered questions later on during the meeting, council member Martin Moore asked if the company intended to hire new employees.

Richey confirmed this and said they would have need from now until 2021.

“We are not ceasing our growth, we will continue to grow and continue to need accounting, finance, revenue operations, those types of positions,” he said.

Council member Lydia Assefa-Dawson then asked how DaVita was marketing currently toward Federal Way residents to apply for jobs.

“We don’t have space for them in Tacoma,” he said. “And the same’s true in Federal Way, as a matter of fact. Building’s 100 percent occupied.”

DaVita could not be reached for comment before press deadline.

Resident Susanne Vargo also spoke during public comment, stating how odd she found it that DaVita was present at the meeting but not speaking on their own behalf.

“I think as DaVita sitting here, to not come up and speak and talk about what their plans truly were, but to have a planner of the city speak on their behalf, I found very disturbing,” she said.

Commissioner concerned over city staff pressure

Before the amendment was brought before the council, the Planning Commission, comprised of eight community volunteers, mulled the issue.

While the commission recently unanimously agreed to pass the amendment onto the council, after the vote Planning Commissioner Diana Noble-Gulliford expressed concerns that the commission’s “yes” votes were the result of pressure from city staff.

During public comment at the council meeting, Noble-Gulliford said after the vote, she was disgusted by her “yes” vote because she felt “threatened” by city staff who noted the significant job loss that could happen if DaVita decided not to construct a new office.

“A staff statement saying that if we don’t approve this alignment, then DaVita is going to walk.” Noble-Gulliford said. “That was a very sobering and concerning statement for me.”

She said the staff statement came after the Planning Commission had first voted to table the motion until they had more information.

“The motion to table did not pass, and the commission … agreed to pass it, including myself,” she said.

Noble-Gulliford asked the council to send the motion back to the commission for further consideration.

“This might be the last opportunity that the council will have to review and adopt policies that will be applied to the former Weyerhaeuser property.”

Ferrell told the Mirror that while the tone of Noble-Gulliford’s comments left people in the city feeling “demoralized,” he hoped the commission didn’t feel pressured by city staff.

According to transcripts from a Feb. 20 meeting, after commissioners expressed their desire to table the motion for another time, city staff told them: “There isn’t an option to table for this later on. We need to take action.”

The transcripts continue to show the city staff person, listed only as “Male Speaker,” said the committee had the option to recommend the option, deny a recommendation, continue the hearing to another date, or move it forward without a recommendation, but a decision needed to be made.

“The timing of this is of the essence in order for DaVita’s project to move forward,” according to the transcript.

Assefa-Dawson said at the meeting she would rather the motion go back to the Planning Commission so it can come back to the council at a later time with more information.

DuClos agreed. “Maybe some changes can be made that will make it suitable or appropriate to make people want to support it from both sides,” she said.

Community Development Director Brian Davis responded to questions that it seemed as if city staff did not present enough information to the Planning Commissioners as was needed.

“For a Comp Plan amendment … we don’t get into these kinds of discussions,” Davis said. “The implication that we didn’t provide enough information, I would disagree with.”

To help address some of the Planning Commissioners concerns, the Land Use and Transportation Committee invited the commission to the Monday night meeting to hear more from their perspective.

At the LUTC meeting, commissioners gave their perspective of why they voted to approve the 324th amendment motion in the first place. All of them agreed they didn’t feel comfortable putting the motion through after-the-fact, and most said they didn’t feel particularly “pressured” by city staff.

In an email to city staff and the Mirror, resident Richard Pierson expressed his appreciation for the LUTC taking time to address the Planning Commission’s concerns.

“I am still [unconvinced] by the discussion this afternoon relative to the merits of the detour to 32nd Ave. South as proposed in the comp plan amendment to extend 324th to Weyerhaeuser Way as being in the best interest of the city,” he wrote, urging the council to take more time to look at all of the information available for this road construction.

“There are no good future options for smooth traffic flows once the building is constructed,” Pierson wrote. “Now however there is time to better study and explore options with a respected company who is committed to community support and environmental protection.”

IRG upset over process

Mark Orthmann, assistant city attorney, told the Mirror this original road structure had been in the Comprehensive Plan as early as 2015, and DaVita purchased their new land from IRG in 2016.

After the letter Ferrell sent to DaVita in March 2017, later the same year in October IRG also expressed their upset with the city about this possible amendment.

IRG reached out to the city’s Planning Commission through the McCullough Hill Leary law firm to express their dismay that the city did not notify them about this potential amendment.

The letter from the law firm to the city reads: “Staff is fully aware that the proposal would impact the planned development of the Greenline Business Park.” The name has since changed to Woodbridge Corporate Park.

The letter urged the Planning Commission to deny the amendment because it was docketed without public process and notice was required by the city code, and because the amendment allegedly failed to meet the standards of the city code for Comprehensive Plan amendments. The letter states the staff report for the amendment claims there is an emergency clause that allows the city to adopt the amendment without following the required processes.

“There is no emergency here, only the city’s apparent desire to illegally interfere with Federal Way Campus’s right to develop its property,” according to the law firm.

Amanda Reykdal, director of public affairs for Allison PR, said IRG is working with the city and feels confident a resolution will be found. Orthmann confirmed the city is currently in negotiations with IRG, as the potential amendment would put more of the 324th Street project onto IRG’s Federal Way Campus property. He was unable to speak to the specificity of the negotiations as it is still an ongoing legal matter, but said the pending negotiations could result in a settlement agreement that would allow the city to later acquire the private property from IRG needed for the road construction.

He did not know how many acres the city would need to acquire from IRG, nor if the acquisition would cost the city any money. EJ Walsh, director of Public Works, said the amendment would save the city about $7 million, as the original plan would have cost around $135 million and the new amended plan costs around $127 million.

The council is expected to vote on this proposed amendment April 2.

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