Today, the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, along with the Port of Tacoma and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, filed a complaint asking a Pierce County Superior Court to invalidate two proposed ballot initiatives in Tacoma.
The two proposed measures seek to require a public vote on any development that would use more than 1 million gallons of water a day – a requirement that courts across the country have said is illegal, and one that risks the health and future of Pierce County’s economy.
“Putting water use for commercial projects up for a public vote will interfere with the EDB’s core mission: to recruit and retain those businesses that bring new jobs, and new dollars, into Pierce County,” said Bev Losey, Economic Development Board chair and senior vice president of insurance firm Brown & Brown of Washington.
“Environmentally progressive businesses succeed here, because we have a rigorous permitting process to protect the natural resources we all hold dear,” Losey said.
The EDB’s Board of Directors voted last week to join the lawsuit.
These initiatives, whose backers are currently gathering signatures, are simliar to initiatives that have been declared invalid in jurisdictions across the country. Just this February, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously struck down an almost-identical Spokane initiative. It ruled, among other things, that the initiative improperly tried to expand a city law into a constitutional issue.
In fact, state law is clear: Intiative and referendum powers cannot be used this way. Utilities are required to meet water and power demand in their service territories, and to make sure the infrastructure exists to support any legal use of water or power. Moreover, Tacoma Public Utilities’ water division serves several jurisdictions beyond the City of Tacoma.
“The EDB looks forward to helping shed light on the value of a balanced portfolio of primary companies in the South Sound, including industrial manufacturing,” said EDB President & CEO Bruce Kendall. “The most successful regions in the world – with the highest quality of life, including environmental quality – are those that embrace the global economy and innovate better approaches to creating products and services across a variety clusters.
“Environmental quality suffers when economies are weak,” Kendall said.
Beyond simple short-sightedness, the proposed initiatives don’t reflect the reality of industrial water use. Tacoma Water’s statistics show that the average demand for businsses on the Tideflats has dropped by more than half in the past 30 years.
Pierce County, along with Washington state, has long balanced high environmental standards with policies that encourage businesses to grow and innovate. That commitment has led to a robust industrial sector that employs tens of thousands of skilled workers and pays an annual wage much higher than the median.
People who work with their hands deserve the same support and investment opportunities as white-collar workers. Putting up barriers to private investment like these ballot measures put an entire setor of the economy – and the jobs it creates – at risk.
The state, under the Environmental Policy Act, requires rigorous review of each development’s environmental impact, including water use. Additionally, land-use and zoning issues are up for public debate regularly at the municipal level. There is no shortage of opportunity for public involvement on commercial development. Requiring a public vote on each one is unnecessary.