TACOMA — Story has been updated with Park Junction site owners’ statement
Plans for a long-contested $200 million resort planned for the outskirts of Mount Rainier National Park were dealt another blow this week.
The Washington State Court of Appeals Division II reversed a 2022 Pierce County Superior Court decision and affirmed the county hearing examiner’s revocation of the project’s conditional-use permit.
The opinion, filed Tuesday (April 25), made clear the project had missed a milestone requiring constructing two demonstration wetlands. “… Park Junction failed to meet this deadline,” the three-judge panel ruled.
The project, proposed by Park Junction LLC, calls for a 400-acre destination resort on the road to Mount Rainier that would include a golf course, a conference center and a 270-room hotel, retail and other amenities. The site is 11 miles from the park’s Nisqually entrance on state Route 706, halfway between Elbe and Ashford.
The Mount Rainier Resort at Park Junction, initially proposed in the early 1990s, won approval of a conditional-use permit in 2000, subject to 100 conditions and periodic status reviews.
Through the years, some key backers of the project died, economic conditions have been up and down, and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted progress, according to the developers in court filings.
Tuesday’s ruling appears to put the project further out of reach.
The opinion stated, “The hearing examiner did not misstate or misunderstand the applicable law. … The hearing examiner granted the permit so Park Junction could build a resort. For the past two decades, Park Junction has used the permit to log trees and begin constructing demonstration wetlands. It has failed to make meaningful progress to build a resort after nearly two decades.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
The resort plans proposed a “270 room hotel with food and beverage outlets, two indoor and four outdoor championship tennis courts, heated swimming pool, a spa and fitness center, and spectacular views of the mountains, valleys, and surrounding hills,” according to the project’s website. “The lodge will accommodate single users or groups of up to 500.”
It also planned for a 22,000-square-foot conference center, 18-hole golf course, and “resort residences” on and around the course, consisting of 220 condominiums, 30 cottages and 75 single-family homes, according to plans still listed on Park Junction’s website. “All of the residential units will be for sale, however, any owner who wishes to place his unit in a rental pool may do so under management by the lodge operator.”
A shopping center, interpretive center and sewer plant to accommodate the new development were part of the project.
Over the years, a number of opponents, including the Tahoma Audubon Society and nearby neighbors, contended that the project was not the best use of the land, among other issues. Meanwhile, the county remained concerned that little if any progress was happening toward development.
Condition 34 of the permit called for progress “in a reasonable and consistent manner.”
The project was found to be out of permit compliance in 2019 but given a chance to get back on track with a timeline and benchmarks established in late October 2020.
A milestone to create two test wetlands was deemed unmet by the Nov. 30, 2020, deadline by Pierce County Planning and Public Works, leading to a recommendation to revoke the conditional-use permit.
In May 2021, hearing examiner Stephen Causseaux sided with the county and in July of that year issued a decision denying a request for reconsideration.
That led to a Land Use Petition Act filed with Pierce County Superior Court.
In March 2022, developers behind Park Junction LLC and its opponents received a split decision from Pierce County Superior Court Judge Timothy Ashcraft That ruling sent back the hearing examiner’s decision to revoke the project’s conditional-use permit.
The case was remanded to the hearing examiner to review specific questions. The decision also rejected portions of Park Junction’s argument, including the LLC’s view that the only relevant time frame to consider whether reasonable progress had been made was from Nov. 14, 2019, to the present.
The Court of Appeals accepted a review of Ashcraft’s decision in May 2022, and the case was heard March 10, with each side given roughly 15 minutes to explain its position.
TEST WETLANDS AND LATEST DECISION
The crux of the case came down to the development of the two demonstration, or “test,” wetlands, how many and when they needed to be finished.
In its appeal, Park Junction argued through its attorney that the hearing examiner’s change from “some or all” to “majority or all” of test wetland creation on Oct. 28, 2020, came in too short of time and changed the condition, essentially moving the goalposts, in Park Junction’s view, from one test wetland to two.
“There was confusion because the wetland mitigation milestone was not imposed until 30 days before it was due,” said Park Junction attorney Margert Archer in oral arguments presented before the appeals court panel. “And it was changed. There was an understanding that originally, they would only have to construct one, all efforts were focused towards the one.”
She continued: “And then when they receive the condition, they took a kind of a two-tiered approach, they filed an appeal of the condition. But then separately, they shifted their gears to try and get that second test wetland done. They didn’t make it. But they did most of the work.”
Gabriel Hinman, the attorney representing Tahoma Audubon in the appeal, argued developers and the county had agreement earlier in 2020 of developing two test wetlands, with formal county approval in July, which also stated developing the two test sites with a deadline of Oct. 30, 2020.
In Tuesday’s decision the appeals court noted that the earlier court ruling remanded the case back to the hearing examiner “reasoning that the record did not show whether Park Junction knew what the first milestone required or whether Park Junction should have received an extension due to COVID-19.”
In the 21-page decision, written by Chief Judge Rebecca Glasgow, the court said, “We reverse the Superior Court’s decision to remand the case to the hearing examiner and affirm the hearing examiner’s revocation of the permit.”
It drilled down on the confusion over the test wetlands, based on earlier testimony at a permit revocation hearing in February and March 2021.
The opinion stated: “The revocation hearing revealed more confusion: Park Junction’s experts did not know who served as the monitoring biologist for the wetlands project, the experts involved did not know who was responsible for monitoring the demonstration wetlands, and the company’s project manager testified that, in spite of ample documents showing otherwise, she believed Park Junction had to complete only one of two demonstration wetlands.”
It also noted there was “substantial evidence that Park Junction failed to communicate pandemic-related difficulties with the first milestone deadline before Pierce County recommended revocation.”
In the end, Glascow wrote, “there is sufficient evidence to persuade a reasonable person that mismanagement delayed the project, that Park Junction did not build two demonstration wetlands or even one by the deadline, and that Park Junction did not communicate its difficulties with the deadline or mention COVID-19 delays to Pierce County until the deadline had passed.”
Robert Mack, an attorney who has represented Tahoma Audubon in the case, told The News Tribune on Tuesday that the project still could find a path forward, but, “We’re pleased with (Tuesday’s) decision.”
“I think the Court of Appeals and the hearing examiner got it right,” he said, “And a Superior Court judge got wrong. But it was argued in front of the Court of Appeals that the developer can apply again for a new conditional use permit. It would just be under new standards that have been adopted for the area. So that’s another route they can take — simply accept this and then apply under new development regulations for the upper Nisqually Valley.”
“It feels like an empty victory, as there is some concern that Park Junction Partners still might appeal to the state Supreme Court,” Kirk Kirkland of the Tahoma Audubon Society said in a news release after the decision.
“It is comforting to read that the latest decision by the Court Of Appeals found that the hearing examiner’s decision was ‘not an erroneous interpretation of the law,’ which would be necessary for a successful appeal to the state Supreme Court.”
A Pierce County media representative for County Executive Bruce Dammeier responded Tuesday via email, “The Executive does not have a comment at this time.”
The outcome was a disappointment for the Adams family of Elbe, who incorporated Park Junction LLC back in the ‘90s as plans developed for the project on their property.
In a statement sent Wednesday evening by a Park Junction LLC attorney, the site owners responded: “We are disappointed in the decision and in the county action it upheld. Our family has lived and worked in the Nisqually River Valley for generations, and has invested significant resources, and years of work, into the Park Junction project.
“It is especially disappointing that during a global pandemic, the county chose not to extend any grace and forbearance to this project even as it freely offered extensions to countless others. Instead, the county moved to revoke our permit the day after a harmless deadline was missed.”
They added, “Despite this setback, we continue to believe this project will be a great benefit to the valley and as a transportation hub offers an opportunity to help reduce traffic at an overcrowded Mount Rainier National Park. We are now in the process of reviewing all of our options.”