Growth Hearings Board calls County Council “clearly erroneous” for brokering Orton Junction compromise

A ruling by the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board has placed the future of Sumner’s Orton Junction project in jeopardy.

In a decision issued Monday and made public Tuesday, the Board found mostly in favor of the appeal, siding with opponents of the project who argued the Pierce County Council overstepped its bounds by approving controversial comprehensive plan amendments that would pave the way for the 182-acre multi-use development.

At the heart of the matter is the County Council’s decision to de-designate 125 acres of agricultural resource lands in order to allow building on those parcels.

“The Board finds the County’s de-designation of the Orton Junction ARL lands is clearly erroneous,” the decision reads. “Farm lands with prime soil are an irreplaceable resource.

“The Board concludes a mistake has been made,” it reads.

Orton Junction is a large development project located at the 66th Ave, Exit of state Route 410, to the south of Sumner city limits. The project would be anchored by a new YMCA building and include commercial and residential development as well.

The County Council in October approved the Urban Growth Area amendments after a process that included a “Seven Principles Agreement” that included a promise to provide “four acres of land suitable for agricultural production protected by permanent conservation easements for every one acre of land currently designated ARL.”

The agreement also looks to create a “green wall” that would forever limit the city of Sumner from expanding further South than the end of the Orton Junction property.

Many of the council members spoke, at the time, of the unprecedented ratio and the increase in protected farmland it would bring.

But the Growth Management Hearings Board did not have quite the faith in the seven principles agreement as the county council and chastised the council for going outside the scope of the law to use the agreement as their main reasoning.

“Clearly, the County’s de-designation action is based largely on the Seven Principles, going well beyond consideration of (Washington Administrative Code) factors and its own comprehensive plan de-designation analysis,” the decision reads.

The Board also noted the soils listed in the current Orton Junction site are considered “prime” by the federal and state government and their loss would be too great.

The board agreed with opponents of the project, including the Friends of Pierce County and several other petitioners, that the county did not consider several other factors toward de-designation, including the fragmentation of other farmland in the area and the local community plan that governs the land, the Alderton McMillin Community Plan, which calls for the land to remain viable for agriculture.

The ruling also states the county did not follow its own comprehensive plans when making their decision to approve the expansion, which was made against the advice of county staff, who recommended the amendments be denied.

The city of Sumner has indicated they plan to appeal the Board’s decision.

“The City of Sumner believes the Board has made a mistake in failing to recognize that Orton Junction is well within the parameters of what is permitted by the Growth Management Act and, in fact, would do more to protect agriculture in Pierce County than the existing zoning has or can do,” read a city press release.

“This decision is attempting to jeopardize the best farmland protection package that Pierce County had ever seen,” said Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow in the release. “Orton Junction would use private dollars, not taxes, to permanently protect over 500 acres of farmland in our valley. Instead, this decision opens that land back up to the possibility of being developed into housing. It just doesn’t make much sense.”

“We will appeal this decision because we believe it is fully consistent with the goals and requirements of the Growth Management Act,” said Sumner Community Development Director Paul Rogerson in the release. “Orton Junction reduces Sumner’s future size by 100 acres, directly combatting sprawl; it permanently protects over 500 acres of farmland and open space; it puts complete, compact and connected development next to existing freeway interchanges where urban services are readily available; and it creates thousands of much-needed jobs.”