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Mirrored Puget Sound Development is a rare study on Regulatory Approaches

— May 11, 2015


Conservative writer and columnist, Charles Murray, wrote a poignant Saturday Essay in the Wall Street Journal, arguing for a citizens’ revolt over the increasingly complicated world of governmental oversight. Noting that there are currently over 175,000 pages of regulations on the books, and moving in an upward trend, Murray contrasts the amount of regulation with the words of Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, that “good government was to restrain men from injuring one another,” and “shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” On the opposite side of the country, on the south shore of Washington’s Puget Sound, a microcosm is emerging, pitting the ideas of regulatory restraint and regulatory freedom against one another. Point Ruston is a new mixed-development community, ironically built upon the former Asarco Smelter site which was closed by the EPA in 2011, considered at the time to be one of the most toxic sites in America. The development lies in the border area between medium-sized city, Tacoma, and the smaller Ruston. Despite sharing the rights and responsibilities of the development, the two cities have far different regulatory approaches, with Tacoma wanting to spur business growth by lighter regulation, and Ruston wanting to maintain a high standard of living through careful planning. The development offers a rare chance to see these dual philosophies incorporated in a parallel environment.

Point Ruston Development on the South Puget Sound Photo Courtesy of Drew Perine-The Bellingham Herald
Point Ruston Development on the South Puget Sound
Photo Courtesy of Drew Perine-The Bellingham Herald

From the onset, the Tacoma side, largely residential with apartments and condominiums, has been building and occupying the properties at a much faster pace while the largely-commercialized Ruston side has been described as a “moonscape.” Ruston’s city officials have been sticklers to the code presented by developers Port Ruston LLC, a company led by Mike and Loren Cohen. Officials consider the provisions in the development’s 2008 master-plan to be “promises,” and not goals. In Tacoma, construction began on a movie theatre’s foundation in early 2014, four-months after the initial application even though the building permit had yet to be approved. David Johnson, Tacoma’s top building official, approved a permit just for the foundation explaining, “That was to enable the construction to start. The rest of the details needed for the building permit wouldn’t affect the foundation — things like the plumbing, heating and ventilation.” Johnson added, “You get the big rocks in place, and the smaller ones will fit.” Tacoma Planning Director, Peter Huffman concurs, saying “That’s what we do. We facilitate. We pride ourselves on being facilitators, not regulators.”

This marks a sharp contrast to the views of Ruston’s City Planner, Rob White, who said, “What developers like to do is, do as little as possible. ‘Someday we’ll do the park. Someday we’ll do the trail.’” City officials and the developers continue to maintain an extremely contentious relationship by professional standards. No example of this illustrates the point like the dispute over a parking garage, the first project completed on the Ruston side. The developers asserted that they were simply trying to apply for a permit to construct the underground garage, city officials however, required a list of nearly 100 items to fix before a permit could be issued. Additionally, 3 months after the Tacoma theatre’s foundation had been approved, the city of Ruston sent the Cohens a 94-page report listing 90 ways the development had deviated from the master-plan. Frustrated by the report and a subsequent 5-hour meeting that produced no results, the Cohens began construction on the garage, claiming that they had the federal authority do so, a contention that the EPA refutes.

White may have proven his point; however, as on the day of the concrete pour for the Tacoma theatre, permitting officials were unable to inspect the rebar that reinforced the concrete due to their lack of certification to work on the contaminated site. The developers poured anyway and city officials approved the inspection of the developer’s engineer retroactively. Meanwhile in Ruston, city building official, Michael Barth, noticed conflicting amounts of rebar in two unofficial building plans and visually inspected the development of the parking garage. Barth found that there was an insufficient amount of rebar in the first wall he noticed and instructed the developers to add more. Although the Cohens believe that their engineers would have caught the Ruston error, it is and will remain unknown to city officials in Tacoma if the amount of rebar for the theatre’s foundation is truly sufficient. Additionally, the EPA has strongly criticized the developers for misinterpreting the law by building without a local permit. The agency is especially worried about lax development of propane and gas lines, calling the matter “gravely-concerning.” State regulators have also threatened the removal of the Tacoma development if measures aren’t addressed to bring the property up to its standards. Even the city of Tacoma, despite accepting fixes retroactively, has come down on the developers, asking for better project management. Although most of the Ruston side remains at a standstill, the two cities are in process of making a joint effort to reconcile the multiple conflicts, beginning with a Tacoma City Council meeting on May 20th.

Relating back to Murray’s column, the pundit derisively declares, “We now live under a presumption of constraint.” While possibly accurate, he writes under the assumption that it is a consistent negative. Using as examples, OSHA requirements of railings needing to be 42-inches high and certain types of latches on bakery flour bins as being silly and arbitrary, many rules such as these have been created, not due to too much free time, but due to scientific studies that show a statistically significant impact of certain practices compared to others. The rebar example illustrates what appear to be insignificant details could ultimately lead to major problems and how regulatory freedom can lead to overconfidence. At the same time, the Ruston example shows what can happen when regulators take a confrontational approach to the entities in which they oversee. By calling for a revolt, however, Murray is, in a sense, unknowingly taking a similarly confrontational approach towards regulation that Ruston has taken toward the completion of this development. Streamlining existing regulatory policies may be a worthwhile effort, but to assume that they serve little purpose is a dangerous and foolish posture.


The Bellingham Herald – Kathleen Cooper and Kate Martin

Wall Street Journal – Charles Murray

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