This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Sumner’s plan to carve a major development – Orton Junction – out of adjacent agricultural land has been a moving target for months. Its supporters kept on refining it, and its preservationists kept on opposing it.
Last week, after the crucial intervention of the Cascade Land Conservancy, Orton Junction finally became a clear win for rural protection.
At first glance, that seems impossible. Despite the tinkering, Sumner will still be swallowing 182 acres of protected rural countryside – including 125 acres of prime farmland – on the city’s southern border.
Any paving-over of topsoil harks back to the bad old days when the Pierce County Council was the girl who couldn’t say no. Developers who came along whistling tunes about jobs, money and affordable housing could pretty much have their way with the countryside.
Orton Junction’s opponents have feared that the project would set a precedent for renewed rural depredation. But what it’s evolved into is a precedent for protection.
The 182 acres in question lie in what used to be called “the path of progress” – meaning that they were square in the cross hairs of future developers. The land is right off State Route 410, convenient to interchanges and within easy striking distance of city utilities.
Sooner or later, these acres were going to get paved. The people behind Orton Junction proposed to pave them sooner with retail stores, residences, a farmers market, medical offices and a coveted YMCA.
There were sweeteners for preservationists in the plan all along, including a return to rural status of 100 acres of “urban growth area” east of the city.
But the key inducement was the creation of a “green wall” of undevelopable farmland south of the Orton Junction that would serve as a permanent barrier to sprawl. Protection through zoning could be undone politically; the idea was to protect these acres by purchasing their development rights, thus foreclosing the future possibility of commercial sale.
The deal brokered by the Cascade Land Conservancy a week and a half ago greatly expanded the green wall, to 500 agriculture acres. A weakly protected 182 acres is thus exchanged for near-impregnable protection on an area several times larger.
With that nailed down, the urban benefits promised by Orton Junction look more enticing. These include 1,250 construction jobs in the short term – more in the long run – and more than 900 permanent jobs in the near future. Then there’s that YMCA.
Though the county council approved Orton Junction on Tuesday, the project’s opponents may appeal to the state Growth Management Hearings Board. If so, we hope the board sees what this really is: a precedent for building tough land-use protections into future decisions on urban growth.