Residents who packed the Pierce County Council chambers agreed on at least one thing Tuesday: Chambers Bay Regional Park — including its accompanying championship-caliber golf course — is a jewel of the South Sound.
But five hours of polarizing public comment revealed that’s about where agreement stops when it comes to new plans for development there, and even supporters expressed reservations about the project.
The Pierce County Council voted 6-1 yesterday to approve a long-term lease agreement that paves the way for a resort at Chambers Bay. The site has become a destination in Pierce County. Decades of planning went into the public park and golf course, which hosted the U.S. Open in 2015 and the U.S. Amateur Championship in 2010.
Under the approved measure, according to The News Tribune, the project’s developer is permitted to build up to 190 hotel or golf villa units. Resort plans also include a restaurant, a new clubhouse and pro shop, an event space and more. The lease spans 50 years, with extension options to follow. The county will remain the property owner for all of Chambers Creek Regional Park.
Eight out of 19 proposed amendments passed before the ordinance was approved in full; it awaits a signature from County Executive Bruce Dammeier.
Connie Ladenburg cast the lone “no” vote, after a failed attempt at postponing action on the ordinance. Ladenburg stressed that council members lacked information necessary to make an informed business decision. The project plans vary widely from an original proposal that was smaller in scope, she noted, and she still needed convincing that the market could support the project as it stands.
“A financially struggling resort is not in the best interest of Pierce County,” she said ahead of the final vote.
A deep bench of residents spoke out both for and against the proposal, including a handful of current and past county leaders — some of whom have touched the development of Chambers Bay over the course of their careers.
Bruce Kendall, president and CEO of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, recalled a similar controversial debate that loomed over the original Chambers Bay development years ago.
The luxury golf course itself wasn’t universally popular then, Kendall said, and the attitude has since shifted. The same will happen here, he said: “This is the right deal, at the right time.”
Other proponents touted the local developers who love and enjoy Pierce County’s jewel as much as their fellow residents. Among them is Tom Absher, who spoke Tuesday and stressed his project’s financial benefit to the county, which continues to pay down debt related to construction of the golf course that opened right before the Great Recession hit.
“Along with increased taxes and golf revenues, there would be a very good likelihood that the county may cover its bond-debt obligation,” Absher said, adding that the group’s plan is sustainable through economic cycles. “Let’s get to work building a success story together.”
Opponents expressed concerns about how the project might impact the picturesque park, specifically the trail system. And they worry about potential impacts to the iconic ninth tee box — the tallest point on the course with the most sweeping views of the water and Olympic Mountains. They also criticized a lack of transparency, a concern that even resonated with supporters of the project.
Despite his vote in favor of the project, Councilman Derek Young acknowledged the concerns in a blog post following what he called a “difficult” vote on a “flawed proposal.”
“I share your frustration with some aspects of the agreement,” he wrote. “At the same time, I have a fiduciary duty to respond to the financial problems with the Chambers Bay Golf Course.”
Young plans to introduce a bill next month aiming to grant more negotiating power to council members in similar situations moving forward. He condemned the county executive for the “inexplicable” process of shutting out council members from negotiations — something he says has become a troublesome pattern. Had the council been included earlier, he stressed, there wouldn’t have been a need for 19 amendments in the 11th hour.
“I’m not satisfied by the process here,” Young said Tuesday. “We could have dealt with some of these issues early on.”