The Key Peninsula Land Use Advisory Commission meetings scheduled for June through September were cancelled by Pierce County, leaving its members wondering just how much voice KPAC has in decisions about development in this community.
“I joined KPAC because I want to keep the KP a great place to live. Others join for the same reason. But it feels like the effort is wasted. We prep ourselves and then there is no meeting,” said Don Swensen, the owner of Blend Wine Shop, who has been on the commission for seven years and serves as chair.
“The county is being less than honest with us and with themselves about the impact of growth out here,” he said. “We are growing. My business is up 40 percent in the last year. And it is not that people are drinking more. I’m serving more people.”
Domoni Glass was a member of the Key Peninsula Community Council in the early 2000s and has served on KPAC for the last six years. “I think the Key Peninsula needs a venue to provide input on the county’s processes such as updates on Growth Management Act planning, the Shoreline Management Plan and the Key Peninsula Community Plan,” Glass said.
“I don’t think we need to approve small projects or projects like bulkheads that have plenty of oversight by a variety of agencies,” she said. “However, I would like to see us involved in projects that have a significant impact on Key Peninsula resources and its citizens.”
There have been some changes in what KPAC reviews. Last fall, at a joint meeting with the Gig Harbor group, they were informed by county planners that they would no longer review permits for shoreline projects.
County Councilman Derek Young said that the elimination of Land Use Advisory Commissions from the shoreline permitting review process was an inadvertent mistake. LUACs generally offer input on all permits that will be reviewed by the hearing examiner, and the updated Shoreline Master Plan shifted shoreline permitting to administrative approval within Pierce County Planning and Public Works rather than requiring review by the hearing examiner. Young has since been able to reverse that change.
Young said that at the county level conflict can arise when a project has administrative approval for permitting and then, when it goes to a LUAC for review, the group expresses concerns. The developer, having assumed they could move forward, may have additional expenses to address issues relatively late in the process.
Young pointed to the Gig Harbor experience with a designer review board — changing it to one that can look at proposals prior to the application process. Although the first reaction of developers was negative, he said, both the community and developers have come to like it.
Sean Gaffney, planning manager at Pierce County Planning and Public Works, said earlier this year, “LUAC members tend to have good local knowledge and can tie into the local community plan. Their recommendations may improve the request and make it a better fit for the community.”
Young said, “There would be a mass uprising if the county moved to eliminate LUACs. Developers would love to get rid of them, but I don’t think the County Executive (Bruce Dammeier) would go that far. But there has been a diminishing role, especially in rural areas.”
Young also said that LUACs in rural communities don’t see as much to review because there is less development going on.
“There are vanishingly small numbers of lots that can be subdivided,” he said. “In a very rural community you notice every building, but growth on the Key Peninsula compared to say, Parkland, where the population has increased by 3,000 a year, is still small.”
Young said that as part of the GMA the county is unlikely to add significant infrastructure on the Key Peninsula. The county wants to avoid induced demand, that is, infrastructure that might encourage growth in rural communities where the goal is to preserve greenspace, forestland and farmland.
Swensen has communicated several times with the planning department, suggesting that they schedule a training for new KPAC members. Though he said the response seems positive, nothing has been scheduled.
Young concurred with the need for more training and said he thinks that LUACs would be a good place to review not only land use but things like transportation. He has reached out to the office of Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier about additional training. As with Swensen, he has not had a response. He said he was not sure whether the problem is that there has been a recent shortage of available staff or that this is simply not a priority for Dammeier.
Dammeier’s office did not respond to several requests for comment on this article.