In land use, the public process is purposely thorough and all important. Elected officials, particularly the mayor in a strong mayor form of government, walk a careful tightrope between trying to attract business with good paying jobs, while not putting their thumb on the scale in such a way that benefits a developer or does not protect and inform residents. The Weyerhaeuser property process has set the tone for community debate, but the DaVita request to change a road brought the challenges and the politics to light.
The politics surrounding the former Weyerhaeuser property have been controversial since the sale was announced. On one hand, the property has long been revered among urban locals as the symbol of northwest culture and its commitment to the environment. On the other hand, it is prime real estate with significant potential for another use, and good jobs for an area that has been primarily a bedroom community.
When sold to Industrial Realty Group (IRG) for $70 million in 2016, it was clear careful handling of the development process was going to be a challenge. City leaders missed an early opportunity to influence the process by limiting its interest to only adding jobs. When first sold, Mayor Jim Ferrell’s former Chief of Staff Brian Wilson seemed to establish a cozy relationship with the developer that concerned residents about the impartiality of the city permit process. Several former Weyerhaeuser employees still live here and joined with other influential residents to form Save Weyerhaeuser Campus (SWC) to try and protect the property, and influence its use.
The 2017 election cycle seemed to change the view from City Hall as Ferrell appeared to curry favor with SWC by emphasizing the environmental review process, rather than jobs, and working with Forterra, a group that focuses on preservation of properties for public good. But there was always a strain between IRG and SWC as to what would be the best long-term use. IRG logically wants to make a profit on their investment and industrial is part of their name for a reason. SWC has wanted more of a mixed-use development that would fit the area, while retaining the special quality the property. IRG mishandled the initial proposal with a fish processing concept that raised transportation and environmental issues. Both groups say they want to preserve to property, but trust is not high between the groups.
Apparently deciding that progress was not being made fast enough, IRG made a change in their leadership from Tom Mesmer to Executive Vice President Dana Ostenson. Ostenson has a more aggressive style. He changed the project name from the Greenline to Woodbridge Corporate Park. He hired a communications firm, along with other consultants, and set about building a support network to help communicate IRG’s plans and increase the political pressure on City Hall.
Ostenson met with the Chamber of Commerce, other local businesses, unions, civic clubs, elected officials and any group he could find to show them what IRG had planned for the property. The initial jobs strategy and partnering with the city was replaced by an appeal to Ferrell’s need for revenue. The funding plan for the new Performing Arts and Event Center had not worked as projected and Ferrell was forced to use loans to pay on the debt, and his plan to tax Lakehaven Utility District is being challenged by the district.
Recognizing an opportunity, Ostenson attended the mayor and council’s meeting with area legislators where the Ferrell was telling the legislators that the city needed money. Using a direct business approach, Ostenson told the group future revenue would be available faster if the city would speed up its permit process. The message was affective, but not subtle.
SWC has also been busy and countered IRG with their own political moves. They wrote letters and testified at council meeting under audience participation, got copies of city reports, and hired one of the better known environmental attorneys, even though their checkbook couldn’t match IRG’s, and filed an appeal.
Then as a backdrop to the Woodbridge process and a view of what could lie ahead, we recently learned DaVita,who is moving more staff here from Tacoma and had bought land from IRG, asked Ferrell in March 2017 for changes, including a road, to fit their plans and timetable. Ferrell’s responsive letter put to writing a proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment that is beyond Ferrell’s authority and would need Planning Commission and council approval.
We also learned that Ferrell’s draft response had been given to DaVita for comment prior to Ferrell signing it. Though Ferrell says “it didn’t favor anyone,” it raised questions about whether it was appropriate for the developer to request the amendment, and then be given the opportunity to provide comment outside public view on the document prior to the mayor signing it. Ferrell’s statement, “We were trying to accommodate DaVita and save 1,000 jobs,” worthy as that goal might be, suggests Ferrell’s decision did “favor” DaVita enough to keep them from following through on their apparent 2017 threat not to move here.
As the issue arrived at the council, we learned that Planning Commissioners, who wanted more study on the road request, had been told by city staff that if the commission didn’t approve the changes, DaVita wouldn’t make the move from Tacoma. That information is irrelevant in a discussion about city long-term planning issues, and came across to some commissioners as pressure from Ferrell’s staff.
Deputy Mayor Susan Honda raised a concern after reading Ferrell’s 2017 letter, as the council had not known about the correspondence, and then they learned about some commissioners feeling pressured.
In another temper tantrum, Ferrell exploded at Honda for bringing the matter up and repeatedly interrupted her attempts to comment. While Honda never did actually accuse Ferrell of anything other than starting the process two years before the council new anything about it, the whole episode did not present the city administration at its best and raised questions of impartiality and whose interests City Hall was protecting. Behind the scenes, several council members were unhappy with the process, not knowing about Ferrell’s letter, and his behavior, even though they eventually approved the change sought by DaVita. Some Planning Commissioners said they did not feel pressured but would have liked to hear more about the long-term impact of DaVita’s request before deciding. However,Planning Commissioners held their ground despite leading questions posed by committee chair Mark Koppang.
But the bigger problem with this side show is that all other development interests have seen it, and will want the same “expedited” treatment mentioned in Ferrell’s letter. The pressure will be more intense to cut corners and residents may not know what is going on behind the scenes. And not every company brings DaVita’s resume. Council members say they will hold the line when needed, but that may be harder when reminded of this episode.
SWC has filed an appeal of IRG’s “Warehouse A” construction. In January IRG and SWC expressed an interest in talking with each other but that may not be as easy as it sounds.
This is an election year for the council, and both land use and transparency are likely to be topics for candidates. And there is subtle movements around the 2021 mayors race already occurring. What lessons do you think have been learned by development interests that use the permit process? Does political pressure work? And the real issue: was DaVita bluffing? If so, this was too easy.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.