The $12 million verdict against Thurston County for interfering in a development project near Maytown was disappointing on several levels, not the least of which is the unwanted burden on a multi-county insurance pool funded by local governments already strapped for cash.
Of greater concern, however, are the allegations by attorneys for the Port of Tacoma and Maytown Sand & Gravel, who brought the lawsuit, that the Thurston County Board of Commissioners was politically motivated in deploying a questionable plan to block the gravel pit. If those claims are true — and a jury of Lewis County citizens thought so after hearing a month of testimony— they raise serious questions about the way county officials, including the commissioners, assessed and reviewed the special use permit for the gravel mine.
The Port of Tacoma owned 745 acres near the intersection of I-5 and Highway 121 where it planned to develop rail operations and a gravel mine. But local residents objected. They pressed the county to designate the site as a wildlife refuge.
The port tired of the political battle and in 2010 sold most of the property to Maytown Sand & Gravel to continue the gravel pit development. It had a 20-year permit for such an operation previously issued by the county.
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County officials ordered new environmental studies during the 2011 five-year review of the permit. The county argued that it wanted to examine issues about the site’s land use that were missed when the permit was originally issued.
The gravel company said those studies led to delays and uncertainty that caused them to miss revenue opportunities. It gave the property back to the port after only paying part of the purchase price.
The jury’s verdict supported every claim by the port and gravel company’s attorneys, and reaffirmed an earlier ruling by the county hearings examiner that the county had overstepped its legal authority during the five-year review process.by applying new environmental rules that were adopted after the original permit for the mine was issued.
Perhaps the county commissioners felt they were responding to a majority interest in protecting what some considered an environmentally sensitive site. Or maybe they were convinced that felt the hearing examiner had missed important issues, an argument the jury didn’t believe.
One thing is clear: their actions gave credence to the belief held by some that the commission has an environmental bias that colors their ability to look at commercial development projects objectively. Private property rights groups will point to the Maytown case as proof that the commissioners hide behind environmental cover to further an anti-development ideology. That sounds like a gross overstatement, but the perception is there.
In a broader context, we believe this board of commissioners has acted in the best interests of Thurston County by trying to comply with the state Growth Management Act, Critical Areas Ordinance and other state mandates to push future density into urban areas and preserve the character of our remaining rural areas.
But the Maytown verdict, if it stands on appeal, suggests the commission exercised poor judgment in this instance. And that unfortunately calls their good works into question, and plays into the hands of their critics.