By Pat Jenkins
Developers who want to build a resort near Mount Rainier want Pierce County officials to keep the door open for it, even though no construction has happened since the project’s birth nearly 20 years ago.
A county hearing examiner listened to that appeal during a public hearing Jan. 15 in Tacoma. The purpose of the session was to help gauge whether there has been enough progress on the project to keep it viable.
Mount Rainier Resort at Park Junction is proposed for about 400 acres off State Route 706, halfway between Elbe and Ashford and 11 miles from Mount Rainier National Park. Plans call for a 270-room guest lodge, 300 condominiums, an 18-hole golf course, a conference center with a 500-person capacity, 20,000 square feet of space for retail stores, and restaurants, tennis courts and a swimming pool. It also would have a train station, its own sewage plant and housing for 120 employees.
Attention in recent years has focused on whether the project, which has been on the drawing board in one form or another since 1994 and whose plans were approved by the county 13 years ago, is making substantial headway or instead is dormant – in large part because of a lack of financing for construction – and should have its permits revoked. The hearing last week didn’t include testimony on whether the project ever should have been authorized or whether it should face revocation. The focus was only on its progress.
Progress was slowed by the death last April of Selwyn Bingham, one of the project’s chief backers, according to William Lynn, an attorney representing project developer BCB Group, which is based in Portland, Ore.
Bingham’s estate remains in probate, leaving his interest in the project unresolved, Lynn said. As a result, 2013 “was a lost year” for the project’s owners, Lynn said. But planning continued, he told hearing examiner Steven Causseaux.
County land-use officials see the project’s status differently. “It appears that no progress has been made,” said Ty Booth, a senior planner for the Department of Planning and Land Services.
The land was logged and cleared in 2004. But after a progress hearing in 2012, a hearing examiner noted there had been “little or no activity on the project since 2007.” Another status hearing was held last year. Since then, a site development permit from the county has expired.
Tahoma Audubon Society, which has opposed the resort proposal because of concern over environmental impacts, wants the county to let the project’s county approvals lapse. Lloyd Fetterley, representing the local Audubon group, said the developers have had enough time to obtain financial backing and start showing signs that the project can be completed.
Lynn said BCB Group has demonstrated its commitment to seeing the project through by spending $12 million and 10 years on planning and other preliminary steps. He claimed legal battles with project opponents have delayed it, along with a recessionary economy.
Related economic factors are why the resort should still be built, said County Councilman Jim McCune. He told the hearing examiner that jobs and related business from the resort would benefit the “poor area” where the resort is planned.
“I’m willing as a council member to do anything I can to get this project up and running,” McCune said.
The project was first proposed in 1994 and passed environmental impact requirements with the county in 1999. Appeals by project opponents led to a series of court rulings, ending in 2005 when the state Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court ruling and restored the project’s approval. Since then, there has been no construction and the project has struggled to obtain financing because of economic conditions, according to BCB Group.
The developers have estimated that construction would take about 18 months to complete once it starts.
During the proposed resort’s approval process, critics opposed the project with claims that it would overload police and fire protection services and increase traffic on SR-706, a heavily traveled route to Mount Rainier. Questions also were raised about environmental impacts from the demand for water and sewer service.