A long-debated proposal for an ambitious and controversial resort just outside the entrance to Mount Rainier National Park is drawing renewed scrutiny as developers say they’re close to finally breaking ground on the project.
The Park Junction Resort is a 420-acre plan that includes an 18-hole golf course, a 270-room lodge, a conference center, tennis courts, swimming pools and a spa, restaurants, 300 condominiums, a retail center and 120 employee housing units, among other construction. The project, located between Elbe and Ashford, has been in various stages of the bureaucratic process since it was first proposed in 1994, and a status hearing on the proposal July 31 has led many on either side of the proposal to weigh in yet again.
According to project manager Sylvia Cleaver, Park Junction is awaiting approval of its wetland mitigation proposal with the county, the final step before it can move forward with the development.
“We had many many environmental issues that we had to overcome,” she said. “One of them was wetlands, because we have been a little bit stalled in getting approval from the county on our wetland mitigation. Now we’ve reached an agreement and we’ll be able to go forward. We expect to pick up our permit just a couple of weeks after the hearing.”
The July hearing was to provide Pierce County with a review of progress on the development, a procedure that was supposed to take place every three years following the approval of the master-planned resort in 2001. The last status hearing took place in 2014.
The project has been in bureaucratic limbo since it was first proposed in 1994, with various appeals from local and environmental groups slowing progress. Attorney Robert Mack, with the firm Smith Alling, has long been involved in legal opposition to the project. He said recent setbacks are due to the developers’ inability to find financing for the project, rather than regulatory battles.
According to Mack, opponents want the county to reconsider the project, because the initial approval was granted based on conditions that are now outdated.
“Essentially our argument now is whatever review was given to it over 15 years ago was based on environmental documents and studies that are over 20 years old, because they were prepared before the hearing,” he said. “The traffic impact study was done in the late 1990s. Many of the assumptions in that study no longer exist. The development has taken so long to be built that we think those analyses need to be revisited and updated.”
Mack said opposition is based on a number of factors, including traffic, habitat and wetlands, water rights and wildlife. In general, though, many feel the large development does not fit with the quiet rural nature of the Elbe and Ashford area.
A post on the Ashford Heads Up Facebook group drew 92 comments on the proposal, with some saying the development would bring much-needed jobs and others expressing concern about its impact on the community.
Local business owner Gayle Adams, a well-known figure in the area, is the majority owner and managing partner for Park Junction, which Cleaver estimated will be a $200 million project. Once ground is broken, she said, it will take at least five years to complete the resort.
“We can’t possibly do it quicker than that,” Cleaver said. “Most likely it will be more than that.”
Cleaver said Park Junction will employ close to 300 workers, making it a vital project for the community.
“Every high school senior has to leave the area because there is no place for them to work,” she said. “They love it, they want to stay there, but there is no choice because there are no jobs.”
She also downplayed concerns about overcrowding in the area.
“I’m not sure that we will make any more impact than the 2 million people who go to the park (annually),” she said. “All 2 million of those people are not going to be stopping at the resort. I’m not sure I see an impact that would take away from the quiet pristine part of the valley.”
Mack said the time it has taken to move forward on construction has called into question the economic feasibility of Park Junction, and again stressed that the delays should require a new review.
“Some of the original conditions have not been met and now cannot be met, because the developers sold some of the property up there that counted for wetlands mitigation,” he said. “The market has decided this project is not financially feasible. It’s taken so long that the background information has changed significantly.”
Cleaver said the project is now much closer to moving forward, despite the long process leading up to the current situation.
“We’re hoping that we’re on good ground here and that we’ll be able to start,” she said. “When that first bulldozer goes forward, then I will be excited.”