Key Peninsula Land Use Advisory Role May Change


Sara Thompson, KP News

The role of the Key Peninsula Land Use Advisory Commission (KPAC) is evolving, and that has some members concerned. 

Don Swensen, who chairs KPAC, said the group was informed by Sean Gaffney, planning manager at Pierce County Planning and Land Services (PALS), at a joint meeting in October 2018 with the Gig Harbor group that the two would no longer review permits for shoreline projects. Swensen noted that the majority of issues that come before KPAC have been related to shoreline development. 

That this change came up at nearly the same time as Pierce County delayed the public hearing where KPAC would review the Hope Recovery Center’s application for a conditional use permit worries him. “I’m concerned that our local voice is being diminished and at the same time there is more public awareness of county issues and the public wants more of a voice,” Swensen said.

According to Gaffney, the hearing examiner appointed by the county council hears cases related to subdivision of land, commercial development, shoreline variances and conditional use permits.

“Land use advisory commission (LUAC) members tend to have good local knowledge and can tie into the local community plan,” Gaffney said. “Their recommendations may improve the request and make it a better fit for the community.” 

At their meetings, LUAC members may decide to approve or recommend against a request. The hearing examiner takes the LUAC recommendation as well as those of PALS staff into consideration. “Ultimately, the hearing examiner is tasked with considering all the state and local land use regulations and that decision will reflect whether or not the request complies with those regulations,” he said. 

Pierce County Councilman Derek Young said that excluding land use advisory commissions from the shoreline permitting review process was a mistake. The Shoreline Master Plan, approved in October 2018, was a decade in the making and language in the plan included shifting all shoreline permitting to administrative approval within PALS rather than requiring review by a hearing examiner. Because the LUACs review everything that is scheduled to go before the hearing examiner, removing shoreline permits from that process automatically removed them from LUAC review. Young sees that as an inadvertent change in the LUAC role and is working to correct it. 

Swensen is concerned that if KPAC objects to a permit and the hearing examiner is no longer involved, any local objections will have no impact on the decision-making process. He said that if PALS staff has already determined the permits coming before KPAC adhere to county regulations, objections will simply be overruled. 

Noting that his district is the only one in Pierce County with significant shoreline issues, Young said that he is working on how to involve the Key Peninsula and Gig Harbor LUACs in a meaningful way. 

Young said that bringing major shoreline projects, preferably at a pre-application point, to the LUACs would allow for better local input. Routine permits that clearly meet the requirements could be dealt with administratively. 

“There is a movement afoot on the part of some county council members and the county executive to decrease the role of LUACs,” Young said. “The change in role is described as streamlining and is driven to some extent by pressure from the building industry.”

Young said he would like to see KPAC and other rural LUACs take on a larger role as a more general advisory body for issues important to the community along the lines of appointed neighborhood councils in Tacoma. 

There are 13 LUACs in the county, each representing a geographic area of unincorporated Pierce County. Each has five to nine appointed members who serve four-year terms and are limited to two consecutive terms. As described on the Pierce County website, the purpose of a LUAC is “to facilitate a structured two-way communication process between the county and community residents, property owners and business owners regarding significant land use issues affecting communities within unincorporated Pierce County.” 

Established in 2008, KPAC’s role expanded in April 2014 to a two-year pilot program. An ordinance passed by the county council expanded its role beyond land use and development to focus on communication between all county departments and Key Peninsula residents, property owners and business owners regarding significant issues affecting the community, including environmental regulations, infrastructure, schools, transportation improvements and public safety. The size increased and included four members of the Key Peninsula Community Council. That pilot ended, and membership now includes two members of the Key Peninsula Community Council with the remainder appointed as members at large.