by Michelle Mood
Tacoma City Planning Department has: NO LEGAL OBLIGATION to promote health justice. NO LEGAL OBLIGATION to promote racial equity. NO LEGAL OBLIGATION to protect us from the climate emergency.
I’ve been working with many organizations and individuals diligently engaging the City of Tacoma Planning and Development Services(PDS) about their development work, such as permitting of projects around the city that pave over wetlands in The Tidal Flats for more storage containers or adding 125 acres of construction in South Tacoma for a project producing over ten thousand new vehicles on our streets daily (LU22-0140 and LU21-0125, respectively), among many others. I and others have found that, despite work done by Tacoma’s Mayor, City Council, and myriad commissions and committees, there is no level of authority that can force a city-level PDS to be in line with resolutions and plans of any type, including those concerning climate action, health justice, racial equity, and environmental justice.
Take, for example, the hard work done by dozens of committees and groups to produce the Tacoma City 2030 Climate Action Plan. This plan calls for “quickly and drastically changing our value systems, behaviors, governance structures, financial practices and technologies.” City Manager Elizabeth Pauli and Tacoma Public Utilities(TPU) Director Jackie Flowers wrote in it that they were committed to the Climate Action Plan and to “ensuring departments’ directors and managers embed climate and equity in every service, policy, program, project and contract.”
The Climate Action Plan also specifically requires that the City Manager’s Office (plus TPU and Office of Environmental Policy and Sustainability) must “advocate for county-wide planning policies that support greenhouse gas reduction and climate adaptation” and “ensure consistency of industrial uses with policies for economic development, public health, environmental enhancement and protection.”
The City response? Since no law impedes it, the PDS has authority to permit under current law the 2.5 million square foot warehouse for Bridge Industrial’s BridgePoint Tacoma with no Environmental Impact Statement.
In fact, when employees of the City Council or the Sustainability Committee or the Planning Commission have tried to weigh in, they are firmly told that the PDS has sole permitting authority.
Thus, the PDS says they can’t deny anything that is compliant with current zoning, even though it will produce more greenhouse gasses, even though it will pave 125 acres on the City backup water (South Tacoma Aquifer), moving a stream and disrupting four wetlands. Even though current zoning embeds racism. A massive construction of a distribution warehouse that will create 8,000 to 12,000 new vehicle trips a day and spewing deadly emissions can go forward without a concern for the damaging environmental health inequities that produce more deadly cardiovascular events and more low-birth weight babies among our Native, Black, Hispanic, Asian and mix-race residents.
No matter that the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department AND the Washington State Department of Health(DOH) have called for delaying permitting of this particular project until a Health Impact Statement is completed.
No matter that various statewide and national departments have called for aligning the construction with values of racial justice, environmental justice, health equity, including the Department of Ecology(DOE), the Department of Health and the US EPA.
The City of Tacoma Climate Action Plan is not a City of Tacoma law, you see. And the PDS is only obligated to follow the law. The Climate Action Plan is just a pretty wish, legally speaking.
City Resolutions are just as meaningless. The City Council has a 2019 Climate Emergency Resolution that states we are in a “public emergency” due to climate change. The 2020 Anti-Racist Systems Transformation Resolution affirms the commitment to “comprehensive and sustained transformation of all of the institutions, systems, policies, practice and contracts impacted by systemic racism.” Why continue to list them? City Resolutions have no legal standing.
You would think, however, that City Manager Pauli must follow the City of Tacoma Economic Development Strategic Plan 2020-2025 and the One Tacoma comprehensive development plan, but does she? The Plan’s mission “requires a commitment to identify and eliminate underlying drivers of social and economic inequity within Tacoma.” And One Tacoma has a whole chapter on the environment exhorting City offices to protect our natural environment, air quality, water quality, and so on, using best scientific practices, to “achieve the greatest possible gain in environmental health City-wide over the next 25 years through proactive planning, investment and stewardship.” Is this happening, either in the City Manager’s office or in the PDS?
First ask, is the Plan a law? “The One Tacoma Plan is intended to help to focus, coordinate and direct City actions by providing a comprehensive and common vision. The policies guide decisions concerning land use regulations, programs, capital improvements and functional plans.” No, it is not the law, just a vision and a guide. And there is your answer. No law, no enforcement of plans and resolutions.
Is this our future? Is there no way to get the change we all recognize is necessary? To respond to our climate emergency and environmental justice?
There’s one ray of hope – the Department of Ecology and the Department of Health have the legal authority to enforce actions compliant with Environmental Justice. This is part of the Healthy Environment For All Act (HEAL Act), which requires seven state agencies, including DOE and DOH to “apply specific Environmental Justice requirements to agency actions.” But recent communication with the Department of Ecology reveals that this has not yet been tested, and would have to go to the courts to enforce.
And one is left with the question of who makes the laws and why are they so skewed against the clear and stated interests of even the City staffers crafting the One Tacoma Plan and the Climate Action Plan? Against the health and safety of Tacomans? Against the plans of the State Departments of Health, Ecology, and the US EPA?
The cynic in me suggests that the system is working just as designed – with diligent and dedicated people sketching out our green and just future while business goes on as usual. The empathic part of me hopes this is a temporary hiccup, a transitory mismatch during this transformation to that new sustainable future our City has sketched out.
At any rate, our City Council members and our Mayor need to work harder to resist business as usual. As the ultimate arbiter, our representatives need to turn a critical eye on decision-making processes to make sure ALL stakeholders’ interests are represented. Without intentional and focused action, there can be no transformative change.
In the meantime, however, the PDS could CHOOSE to do the right thing on its own and call for an Environmental Impact Statement – or …. Maybe all that serious work by City and State offices producing resolutions and Action Plans and recommendations is just window dressing … and always will be.
Check out a longer, more in-depth version of this blog at bit.ly/NoLegalObligation
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