From Nisqually Valley News
On Tuesday, Yelm City Council approved 3-1 final building plans for Tahoma Terra to add 62 homes to complete their final subdivision. Councilor Joe DePinto was the only “no” vote.
The point was originally presented to the Council at the previous meeting, but the uncertainty about the available water rights and ignorance of the project caused the Council to postpone its decision until this week. The delay gave them time to discuss the decision and to gain background at the council’s study session last Tuesday.
The city would have become legally liable and could have been sued for damages had the council refused to subdivide after approval of the hearing examiner, according to Yelm city administrator Michael Grayum. Builders have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars installing electricity meters and building roads in preparation for residential construction after obtaining building permits.
Concern about available water rights was raised by Steve Klein, a member of the Yelm community and blogger, at a council meeting in March. He said he doesn’t represent any organization affiliated with JZ Knight or Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, despite serving as Knight’s spokesman between 2005 and 2014.
Knight sued the city of Yelm in 2011 for potentially violating its priority water rights by authorizing 32 acres of residential development. The ruling forces cities to prove they have sufficient water before zoning plans are approved.
Yelm’s water rights were cut in half after Sara Foster, a student at Ramthas School of Enlightenment, argued against the city’s water project along the River Deschutes.
The court known as the Foster Decision ruled that the Department of Ecology made a mistake in approving a water rights permit for the city, which would have supplied water to up to 2,800 households.
Tahoma Terra Developers acquired 513 equal housing units (ERUs) in water rights in the purchase of Dragt Dairy Farm, which allowed them to build hundreds of homes and units with the water purchased when the property was purchased. The water rights were then transferred to the city’s Department of Environment-approved water bank and were contractually reserved for Tahoma Terra’s future growth.
The development required the council’s ministerial action to approve the final development plans, add 62 houses and use the remaining 62 ERUs that needed to be allocated to the Tahoma Terra under a contract signed more than a decade ago. The project was conditionally approved by the Yelm Hearing Examiner in August 2016 and has since been found compliant by city officials.
The audit system consists of three steps: the first is an urban review of development plans; the second is a review by the hearing examiner, who can either approve or reject the plan; The third step is for the Council to confirm the subdivision.
As of Jan. 1, the city had 319 ERUs remaining, 252 remaining after the 62 was taken over by development and five are reserved for the Yelm School District if there is a construction loan. 252 ERUs allow an average growth of two to three years before the city would be forced to stop development.
“The living space in this community is rare. A development of this magnitude would not have been possible without our own water, ”said Grayum. “Although the amount of water the city can provide is limited, we still have water available for individual households and businesses. We continue to work with government agencies, local tribes and community partners to secure water rights for the city’s future projected growth. “
After the Hirst “fix”, Yelm could get more water rights through a proposed pilot project for the Deschutes River Habitat Restoration Project. The bill empowers the Department of Ecology to set up a task force to recommend mitigation strategies to obtain additional water rights. Ecology will process five water permit applications, including Yelm as a pilot project to update the task force on the progress of the city’s water reduction strategy.
“This bill is helpful to Yelm because it addresses the Foster ruling that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars and contributed to the housing crisis in our area,” said Rep. JT Wilcox, R-Yelm. “Under Senate Act 6091, Yelm is receiving a funded pilot project to fix the problems Foster caused.”
The Department of Ecology’s task force will likely decide on Yelm’s future water rights within two years, said Chad Bedlington, public works director.