King County is moving to re-open a federal case against a businessman with ties to Enumclaw in order to force him to stop what the county describes as an illegal operation in Auburn.
The case involves defendants Ronald Shear and Ronda Sterley, who for the last several years have been trying to open the Enumclaw Recycling Center, a land debris and material recycling business, north of the city off Enumclaw-Franklin Road.
The proposed Enumclaw Recycling Center has been met with strong local resistance that has claimed Shear has been operating illegally on the local land — an assertion that is bolstered by a long history of flouting the law not just in King County, but Pierce County as well.
If the county’s motion is granted, it will seek to utilize the King County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Marshal Service to compel BRC to shut down and remove the materials and debris that has collected on the Auburn site.
To understand King County’s interest in re-opening a federal case against Shear, here’s a little bit of history:
Shear first earned Pierce County’s attention back in 1996 when he operated Shear Transport in Buckley just off state Route 410. The county had received complaints about the business and investigated, finding that Shear did not have the proper permits to run his dumpsite business.
Despite asking for an application, health department records revealed, Shear never submitted his paperwork and continued to operate the dump site for the next six years with violation letters from the health department, Pierce County Planning and Land Services, the state Department of Ecology and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency piling up.
A fire started at the dumpsite in 2002, and after several more inspections, the Pierce County Solid Waste Department added Shear Transport to the county’s “Dirty Dozen” illegal dumpsite list.
The Pierce County Superior Court ordered Shear to shutter his business in 2003, ruling the site a public nuisance.
In an interview with the Courier-Herald in 2017, Shear maintained he always tried to work with county authorities, and that there was more to the story than what appeared in official paperwork.
Before the fire prompted the county to shut Shear Transport down, Shear opened a new business in 2001 in Auburn called the Buckley Recycle Center, 28225 West Valley Highway North.
A legal battle between Shear and King County started in 2004, when the county amended its zoning code and told Shear he was now required adhere to the new zoning law and apply for a permit. However, Shear said his business should be grandfathered in, as his business existed before the county’s re-zoning.
The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which sided with the county in 2013, ruling Shear would not be grandfathered in and needed to relocate his business. Shear and King County worked together to find the land in Enumclaw that the Enumclaw Recycling Center would eventually try to open on. Shear bought the land in 2016.
In the same year the state Supreme Court handed Shear his second court loss, he and the Buckley Recycle Center were sued by the Seattle-based Waste Action Project for violating the federal Clean Water Act.
An official agreement, called a consent decree, was finally signed by both parties and approved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in March 2017, though not without Shear apparently dragging his feet the entire way. The agreement tied into the state Supreme Court’s ruling four years earlier, and requires BRC to move to another location.
This is the case King County is looking to re-open, and the county filed a motion June 18 with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
Representing Shear, Sterley, and BRC in this case is Justin Park of the Romero Park law firm in Bellevue, Washington.
In an email interview, Park declined to comment on the case due to pending litigation, but added that “BRC believes its process and products should be considered agricultural in nature and that if it were to apply today, current regulations would allow this use at the Auburn site
“BRC has never tried to disregard the county and its issues,” Park continued. “This motion comes without warning even though BRC has reduced inventory in excess of 100,000 cubic yards of material from the site since they started reporting.”
WHY RE-OPEN THE CASE?
This is not King County’s first attempt to get Shear and Sterley to shut down Buckley Recycle Center (BRC). According to Public Information Officer Brent Champaco, “the county’s efforts to enforce the code against these defendants has continued since the opening of its code enforcement case in 2005. BRC simply refuses to shut down as ordered by several authorities, including a Hearing Examiner, the Washington courts, and permitting through its legally enforceable directives.”
The county’s motion specifically mentions various agencies having sent Shear and Sterley cessation demands in 2014, 2017, 2018, and 2020 — demands that were clearly ignored.
In fact, Shear claimed that BRC had resolved its issues with King County several years ago.
“BRC has made every effort to operate in an environmentally responsible manner. We have resolved complaints from our neighbors, from King County, from the Clean Air Agency and the Department of Health,” he wrote in a 2016 declaration during the legal battle with the Waste Action Project, adding as evidence a 2016 letter from the county health department stating its complaints with Shear, filed in 2008, “were no longer viable.”
In its motion, King County contends the issues it has with Shear and BRC have not been resolved, given its repeated attempts to shut the business down, and that Shear’s statement “was misleading and not in good faith or in the interests of justice.”
As additional evidence of bad faith, the county points to a 2015 declaration in the Waste Action Project lawsuit, where Shear described BRC as “a viable business.”
“Implicit on Mr. Shear’s testimony is a presumption that the defendants’ operation of a ‘viable business’ meant operation in compliance with applicable laws,” the county’s motion reads. “There was thus no basis in fact supporting Mr. Shear’s testimony… to this court, under oath, that he actually could continue to operate a ‘viable business’ at Auburn, because one year earlier he had been lawfully ordered to shut down by local authorities three years after being ruled by the state’s highest court to be operating illegally.”
Given 15 years-worth of attempts to shut BRC down, the county is now seeking to use force by targeting the 2017 consent decree with the Waste Action Project.
According to the consent agreement, BRC is supposed to “employ their best efforts” to apply for the necessary permits to move the business to another site — in this case, Enumclaw — and receive a final occupancy permit. Once BRC received that permit, “BRC Defendants will vacate operations in and remove all materials and equipment from the remainder of the [Auburn site]… one acre every six months,” the agreement reads.
King County argues this agreement “sanction[s] the indefinite continuation of an illegal operation by the BRC defendants of their… facility in Auburn.”
The county — or even the state — has no power to change the language in that agreement: “The only direct course available to King County… is to seek an order from this Court striking the terms of the settlement which allow BRC to illegally continue its operation in Auburn,” the motion reads.
If the motion is approved and the county is given intervenor status, King County could “authorize the assistance of the United States Marshal Service, which, together with the King County Sheriff, would take steps to shut the operation down and compel Mr. Shear to remove his stockpiles,” Champaco said.
ENUMCLAW PLANS STALLED
Given this consent decree gives no deadline to when BRC needs to leave their Auburn site beyond when they receive a final occupancy permit to open on another site, King County is attempting to show the court that Shear and Sterley’s permit application at the Enumclaw site has made no progress.
“As of three years after entry of this Consent Decree, the BRC defendants do not have a concrete plan or proposal submitted… for its Enumclaw site,” the county’s motion reads.
As evidence, the county points to an email thread between CPH Consultants, who was working with the Shear and Sterley, and King County Senior Project Manager Dehkordi Fereshteh.
“I’m working on the revisions for the Enumclaw recycle site and are looking at a couple options… see attached concept,” reads a Feb. 24, 2020 email from CPH to Fereshteh, who herself noticed the new plans were vastly scaled down from the original.
But this is not the only issue at the Enumclaw site.
Neighbors from the site complained to the county that Shear and Sterley have been performing work on the land without the appropriate permits. Under the King County code, businesses can clear up to 7,000 square feet of land without a permit, but nearby residents claimed they had cleared far more than what was allowed
“We’ve noticed there’s a history of, every time there’s a holiday… somebody’s out there working,” local Connie Fong said in a 2019 interview about the complaints. “He’s done substantial work back there since the stop work order was issued. He just thumbs his nose at everybody.”
These complaints, which came with photos of large trucks and an excavator on the property, led to King County issuing a stop work order on Jan. 15, 2019. Shear and Sterley appealed the order a few days later.
According to the county’s motion, the Hearing Examiner upheld the stop work order on March 26, 2020, finding Shear and Sterley had cleared a “substantially greater” amount of land than was allowed — an estimated 15,000 square feet, King County claimed.
“The defiant determination of these defendants to engage in illegal conduct continues undaunted by the adverse rulings reached after fair adjudication by legal authorities,” the county wrote in its motion.
Park denies that BRC is purposefully stalling on the permit application for the Enumclaw site.
“BRC has diligently worked on processing its permit application for the Enumclaw site, as can be seen by reviewing the permitting file, but intense scrutiny by King County’s own permitting staff has forced BRC to revise their proposed site plans several times,” he said. “These changes were made to reduce potential impacts from their operation to adjacent properties. No plans have been scrapped, BRC has simply had to adjust.
“Given that one arm of the county wants BRC to terminate its Auburn operation, BRC would hope that this effort to speed the process by reducing the size of the development would have been welcomed by King County,” Park continued. “BRC will respond to King County’s motion and remains optimistic about its prospects for the future.”
As of July 3, an official response to the county’s motion from Shear and Sterley was due in court by July 10, with a hearing scheduled for July 17.