A resort long proposed in a prime location near Mount Rainier National Park has suffered a serious setback that could lead to its demise.
In a decision issued May 20, a hearing examiner granted Pierce County Planning and Public Works’ request to revoke a conditional-use permit for development of the Mount Rainier Resort at Park Junction project.
The project’s developers filed a request for reconsideration May 28.
Plans for the project initially were filed in the 1990s. The proposal has been subject to a complex conditional-use permit that includes more than 100 conditions and has been continuously challenged by opponents.
In his latest decision, hearing examiner Stephen Causseaux wrote:
“This applicant has not shown that it has the ability to complete a massive, complicated, resort project in the foreseeable future, if ever. Therefore, revocation of the permit is the appropriate remedy.
“By failing to meet the first agreed upon milestone, the applicant essentially revoked its own permit.”
That milestone, the creation of test wetlands, faced a Nov. 30 deadline and was the subject of a separate Land Use Petition filed in November 2020 over the terms and deadline.
In the developers’ request for reconsideration, attorney William Lynn wrote in a 15-point outline, “It is not fair or consistent with the evidence to say the applicant is at fault for the current status of the wetland issues. It literally did all that it could without participation of other agencies and without available contractors because of the pandemic and hot construction market.”
Park Junction LLC seeks to develop a destination resort on more than 400 acres between Elbe and Ashford that would include a golf course, a conference center, a 270-room hotel, retail and other amenities.
The conditional-use permit for the estimated $200 million project was first approved in the early 2000s and has faced periodic status reviews in public hearings.
The project’s extended period of inactivity has been continuously challenged by its main opponent, the Tahoma Audubon Society, whose members contend the project will bring sprawling blight, ruining lands now populated with elk and other habitat.
Following the project’s third status hearing in July 2019, with those testifying against the project outnumbering the proponents, a Pierce County hearing examiner decided specific milestones had to be met to keep the conditional-use permit afloat.
The first required development of two test wetlands, with an initial deadline of Oct. 30, 2020, that was extended by the hearing examiner to Nov. 30, 2020.
On Dec. 1, 2020, a county review of the test wetland sites found them to be still under development and led to the county pursuing a revocation of the permit.
In his decision, Causseaux wrote, “This revocation petition must be considered in light of not only the failure of the applicant to meet the first and easiest milestone, but also in light of the applicant’s progress over the past 20 years.
“A review of testimony and documentary evidence in the record shows a history of excuses and mismanagement that previously delayed the project. Said history continues as the applicant has now missed the first agreed upon milestone. Evidence and testimony clearly show that the elements causing past delays, to include inadequate supervision and organization, remain.”
The decision has been challenged by Park Junction LLC, which represents the development partners, including Sylvia Cleaver Shepherd of Portland, Oregon, and Rick and Gayle Adams of Elbe.
Gayle Adams and his wife, Cora, in the early 1990s partnered with Shepherd, who brought in Selwyn Bingham, one of her partners at BCB Group, a development firm in Portland.
Bingham died in 2013; Cora Adams died in 2018.
Request for reconsideration
The partners involved in the project filed a brief after the revocation hearing but before the hearing examiner’s rulling. In it, they called the possibility of revocation “unwarranted and disproportionate.”
“Intentional violations of land use permits occur regularly that have real physical impacts and the County does not, as a rule, seek revocation even in those cases,” wrote their attorney, Lynn. “The County has not met its burden here where there was no failure to act, no intentional violation, and no harm.”
Later, in a five-page request for reconsideration, Lynn stated: “There was no evidence that the delay in completion of the test wetlands would have any impact on any other aspect of the proposal. In fact, the evidence shows that the Applicant was continuing to make progress on other milestone requirements up to and through the date of the hearing. The wetland mitigation is not required by any code until impacts occur.”
He added: “The only information that is delayed is the ability to see the performance of the test wetlands over the wettest part of the rainy season. There is no evidence that delay will adversely impact the schedule in any other respect. Again, all of this mitigation is being completed (even with the delay) well before any actual impacts occur.”
Causseaux in his decision wrote that the delays did have a ripple effect on surrounding businesses and the national park itself.
“The proposed resort affects business decisions for owners of restaurants, lodging, gift shops, etc., in the Upper Nisqually area,” he wrote. “Furthermore, the resort proposed to work with the National Park Service to provide a bus to the mountain and also offered to connect the park headquarters building to its sewer system. Such affects the Park’s decision of whether to improve or repair its onsite septic system.
“Delays may have impacted the Eatonville School District that must decide whether to close Columbia Crest Elementary due to lack of enrollment or to leave it open in anticipation of resort development. Finally, neighbors have waited many years to make plans for their parcels depending on resort development. Delays have impacted the entire Upper Nisqually area.”
Lynn, in the request for reconsideration, responded: “There was no testimony establishing that anyone was waiting for any of these items or that they were hampered by the delay. There was no evidence of harm that the Applicant could rebut. The comment about the Park Service is especially troublesome. The Park Service transportation system is not waiting on the project, the project is waiting for the Park Service. The Applicant would be delighted if the National Park Service would commit to its portion of the planned use.”
Tara Long, media representative for Planning and Public Works, said via email in response to questions: “The Hearing Examiner will decide what is next in the process after reviewing the request for reconsideration.”
Long added: “Based on the Hearing Examiner’s decision issued on May 20 to revoke the conditional use permit, all work on the property should discontinue at this time.”