Residents, developers, Federal Way officials spar over Weyerhaeuser plans

The Federal Way City Council's study session on the proposed Weyerhaeuser development was informative most times, emotional sometimes, and confrontational a few times, and all of it may signify nothing in the end.

The Federal Way City Council’s study session on the proposed Weyerhaeuser development was informative most times, emotional sometimes, and confrontational a few times, and all of it may signify nothing in the end.

A little over 300 people packed City Hall Thursday night, filling the council chambers to standing-room-only capacity and spilling into two overflow rooms and a portion of the downstairs lobby. Stenciled signs opposing industrial zoning were left outside the entrance to the building, a few posters protesting the development plans were raised inside, and it was clear from the outset that those in attendance were going to be hostile to the two applications made public thus far.

The meeting opened with presentations from those planning to develop the former Weyerhaeuser property, including Tom Messmer of Industrial Realty Group, the current property owner, and representatives from the companies interested in building a frozen fish processing center, a warehouse, and office buildings on the site. About an hour and 10 minutes later, the public comment period started, and the citizens who spoke for the next three hours spoke to a single point: The development applications submitted so far were wrong for Federal Way.

“This is going to be a mess,” said attorney Rick Aramburu, who’s representing the North Lake Improvement Council in its opposition to the development. “There is going to be lawsuits and other activities that I think the Council will not like.”

Aramburu advised the Council to adopt a moratorium delaying the development. The push for a moratorium in Federal Way, the last of which was enacted June 7 to halt the development of new multi-family housing units, was repeated many times by subsequent speakers.

Other speakers opposed using the unique property for the projects under consideration.

“This is not an industrial zone,” said Dennis Forsythe, a Federal Way resident who lives near the site. “This property, this building, will stand in stark contrast to the iconic Weyerhaeuser headquarters, which everybody cherishes. It’s a landmark. It’s on your city’s website. There’s no other building like what’s being proposed in the neighborhood.

“It will be bleak, it will be cold, it will be unattractive… I just, for the life of me, can’t understand what has happened to allow an industrial freezer [and] fish processing plant to be built in that neighborhood.”

The pleas for rejecting the construction applications and the calls for a moratorium were broken up just before 10 p.m. by a testy exchange between Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell and speaker Elizabeth Kari. Kari cited a Mirror story on a June 22 breakfast meeting attended by Ferrell at which Messmer reportedly said IRG had not yet decided what would be done with the property. Kari said Ferrell’s inclusion in the accompanying photo, considered alongside city documents dated before the breakfast that seemed to indicate city staff had met with IRG officials, demonstrated Ferrell and other city officials knew months ago what IRG had planned.

Ferrell waited for Kari to finish, then said, “You know, we were not speaking at that breakfast, we made no such representations, and no misrepresentations have been made. People work here on the people’s benefit, and to accuse people of misrepresentation is really inappropriate… Don’t accuse — I didn’t speak at that breakfast, and don’t accuse me of misconduct. Don’t accuse good, working people — Mr. Messmer spoke at that breakfast. I didn’t speak at that breakfast, I didn’t write that article. All right? So I don’t appreciate being accused of misconduct, and you should think about your comments before you deliver them.”

By about 11 p.m., after the public comment period, questions arose about what, exactly, those in the council chambers Thursday could really do about the development.

“My question is, what can the Council do?” Duclos said. “Because we heard from the city attorney that the Council had no authority in this matter whatsoever… What role does the Council play here?”

Acting City Attorney Mark Orthmann said the City Council had indeed given up its power to approve or deny construction permits in 2014.

“People came here expecting to talk to us and to get some answers to see what the Council can do, and it doesn’t seem like the Council can do anything,” Duclos said.

“Then why are we here?” asked a woman in the audience.

“I don’t know,” Duclos responded.

Ferrell said two council members, later identified by councilwoman Susan Honda as herself and Kelly Maloney, requested the study session per Council rules. At that point, more comments and questions from the audience turned the meeting into an impromptu question-and-answer session between Ferrell and the remaining attendees.

“Here’s the thing, OK? Let’s — you guys are all here, obviously this is being recorded and televised, we’ve got the follow-through rooms… Once an application [to build] is made, once the application is filed, then that application is ‘vested,’ meaning that the law that applied at that very moment is the law. And we would be putting the city of Federal Way in severe financial risk if we were to change the zoning after an application is filed.”

Ferrell cited some examples, including the $18.3 million July judgment against the city of SeaTac that was handed down after SeaTac officials used a series of legal maneuvers to prevent a property owner from building a parking garage on its property.

Equal treatment under the law is what we absolutely must do,” Ferrell said. “We will open the city up to massive liability if we were to change the zoning once the application has been filed. Period. And I can’t change that.”

Ferrell went on to explain property rights, previous conflicts between the Federal Way City Council and construction applicants, the reason the Council gave up its permitting authority in 2014, the uniqueness of the 1994 annexation agreements between the city and Weyerhaeuser, and why the law makes it inadvisable for city officials to comment on the current projects.

“This is a unique circumstance. We have never — and I was on the Council 10 years, I’ve been mayor almost three years now — we have never engaged in this type of dialogue with citizens. But councilmember Duclos asked why we had this meeting and why several council members asked for this meeting… We want to provide you with the maximum amount of information possible. That’s why we’re doing this, and…”

Ferrell was again cut off by an audience-member’s question. Shortly thereafter, council members took turns thanking residents for their passion and reminding them that no decision had yet been made. The meeting was adjourned around 11:30 p.m.

The meeting had started four-and-a-half hours earlier with presentations from Messmer and from RJ Burton, vice president of Victory Unlimited Construction, which plans to build the 7.2-acre frozen storage and office space facility to be used by Preferred Freezer and Orca Bay Seafoods.

Messmer opened by lamenting the rumors and misinformation surrounding his company’s plans.

“A lot of you are here because you’ve heard a lot of incorrect information, and I would fall on my sword for some of that because we didn’t get out ahead of some of it,” he said, showing on-screen a list of projects “NOT in our Plan” like demolishing or altering the exterior of the Weyerhaeuser headquarters building, building multi-family homes, or asking the City Council to re-zone the land.

“We wouldn’t spend $70 million to buy that property with that building just to tear it down,” he said. “We want to keep that headquarters campus building the headquarters campus building, so we can go out and find that one big tenant that replaces Weyerhaeuser.”

Messmer said IRG doesn’t see it as a single property but “as six areas,” illustrated below. He noted that about 300 acres of the property remain undeveloped, but he said IRG is looking to “smartly develop” only a portion of that acreage so companies can occupy the property and bring jobs to the area.

“I think it’s important to recognize there’s 430 acres in total — Weyerhaeuser already developed a third of the property,” Messmer said. “The headquarters building and the tech center are many, many times the size of the parcel that we’re talking about developing for Preferred Freezer. Preferred Freezer is 4.4 percent of that 300 acres.”

A spokeswoman for Preferred Freezer also spoke, projecting that his company and Orca Bay would bring in about 250 total jobs (75 of those being freezer jobs). Burton said after that the completed Preferred Freezer/Orca Bay facility would produce no odors, since the transported seafood would frozen solid, and about 53 new truck trips per day between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The company also committed to preserving the plant life on the property and even adding to it.