A pending Thurston County decision has stalled and could threaten the controversial sale of the Port of Tacoma's Maytown property.
The port has a ready buyer for the 745 acres of land in South Thurston County – a company with plans to mine the site for gravel. But whether the county ultimately will allow the mining is in question.
At issue is whether the port has complied with a special use permit granted by the county in 2005. That permit says it’s all right to mine the site if the property’s owners meet 54 specific conditions.
Those conditions range from putting mufflers on any equipment used at the site and improving nearby roads to monitoring the site’s groundwater.
Following questions raised by the property’s potential buyers and by an environmental group opposed to a gravel mine on the site, Thurston County officials are now reviewing whether the port has met conditions of the permit.
They say the port is already technically out of compliance with some of the requirements.
“The question we have to answer is whether those are significant or not,” said Mike Kain, the county’s manager of land use and environmental review with the Resource Management Department.
The county’s three-person Board of Commissioners has scheduled a meeting today to learn more about the issue, though it won’t decide on the port’s permit.
The permit compliance decision rests with county’s Resource Management Department, which will do a formal review at the port’s request of whether the port met the permit conditions – and then either allow the mining to proceed, delay the mining until conditions have been met or revoke the permit altogether.
The latter is rare, Kain said.
“That would be pretty extreme if we would revoke or suspend the permit – but it’s not out of the realm of possibility,” he said.
The Tacoma port’s foray into Thurston County has been controversial from the start. The port bought the property for $22 million in 2006 with the idea of creating a rail logistics center. Significant community opposition derailed that proposal.
The port has been trying to sell the property ever since.
“It is stalling the process,” said Jack Hedge, the port’s real estate manager. “This uncertainty around (the conditions and the port’s compliance) is a delay in getting this all done.”
The property’s potential buyers – a group called Maytown Sand and Gravel – sent several questions to Kain in November about the port’s permit and compliance with it.
The buyer’s representative, Jeff McCann, didn’t answer a request for an interview from The News Tribune.
Friends of Rocky Prairie, an environmental group focused on conserving the port’s Maytown property as prairie land, also sent a letter to Kain in November, urging him to revoke the port’s gravel mining permit.
The letter from Friends of Rocky Prairie cited several reasons the county should do so, including perceived violations of the permit’s conditions. FORP rallied the community against the port’s initial logistics center plan and helped bring its demise. “We’re not trying to stall the sale, we just want (the port) to follow the law,” said Sharron Coontz, FORP’s unofficial leader.
McCann’s e-mail and Coontz’s letter both reference a requirement in the mining permit to monitor the property’s groundwater. The port filed those documents two years after the deadline required by the permit condition.
The reports were incomplete, and Kain said in his memo back to McCann that there should have been nearly two dozen water monitoring reports filed with the county. The port filed nine, he said.
The tardiness puts the port “technically in noncompliance,” Kain wrote in his memo. And “the reports, as submitted, are not acceptable,” he wrote.
Earlier this month, Tayloe Washburn, a Seattle land use attorney representing the port, sent a memo to Thurston County regarding concerns with the permit conditions.
The port has now collected and submitted more groundwater data than was original required and contend that the late reports didn’t harm the environment, Washburn said.
“There were some technical deficiencies, but we have clearly and substantially complied, and there has been no harm done,” Washburn said.
Kain said that typically they wait for an organization to ask them to review a special use permit – and then they issue a letter allowing them to proceed if the conditions of the permit have been met.
He expects the port will ask for such a review in the next three to four months. Port officials said it could be much sooner.
In the meantime, he added that the county is also working with the port to lessen the effect of the proposed mining project. Kain would like to make sure that the site is mined in a way the protects the nearby prairie habitat, and he wants to ensure that there will never be an asphalt plant on the property.
“It’s either going to be a mine or a prairie open space, and that’s where we are right now,” he said.
Kelly Kearsley: 253-597-8573