With high hopes of enticing private-sector green businesses to invest there and bring hundreds of high-paying jobs with them, on Aug. 7, 2006, the Auburn City Council created a new industrial designation for the 270-acre Auburn Environmental Park.
Uses allowed on 158 acres of the Environmental Park zone, as it was called, west of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail lines and spanning West Main Street, were to focus upon medical, biotech and “green” technologies, including energy conversation, engineering, water quality and similar uses.
But investors didn’t bite.
Instead, they put their money into two nearby areas zoned for light industrial uses.
Today, the EP zone consists of a mix of pre-existing industrial properties, several large city-owned properties, including the Environmental Park, and wetland properties that are a component of the City’s stormwater management system. Because of the amount of existing industrial activity that exists within the current EP zone that was developed before the zone even existed, however, much of it doesn’t conform to the zoning designation it has today.
Which creates challenges for property owners – for insurance and lending, for buying and selling and for renting spaces.
In 2014, property owners joined an attorney and a realtor in asking the City to consider returning those 158 acres to a light industrial designation.
Last month, planners introduced to the City’s Planning Commission an ordinance that would make that happen. The commission then deliberated and voted to recommend that the City Council approve the area-wide rezone.
On Monday, the City Council at a study session discussed a rezoning ordinance that would do that, leaving the Environmental Park itself, however, out of the change.
Councilman John Holman argued for the ordinance.
“We’re looking just at the zoning of privately-owned land, and what people can do. … I applaud the decision council made back in 2006 when the Environmental Park Zone was created as an economic development incentive for people who would want to start environmentally-sensitive businesses,” Holman said. “We thought it would attract the type of businesses that would really want to be in proximity to an environmental park.”
The problem with that thinking, Holman said, was that it hasn’t worked.
“Here it is 11 years later, and we haven’t brought in one single business that would want it with the type of zoning we put on it,” Holman said. “So, I don’t want to discourage us from being creative in the future and creating things that might be a real economic boon to us. But if it doesn’t work, then we really can’t encumber private businesses. If it has unintended consequences, we also have to be willing to change.”
Holman noted that three property owners within the EP zone had submitted letters to the City, applauding the proposed rezoning.
Naturally, said Councilman Rich Wagner, one of the original movers and shakers of the Environmental Park zone as an economic catalyst, property owners would be for the “highest use,” which would make them the most money, but not necessarily for the “best use.”
While Wagner conceded that the EP zoning hasn’t attracted those businesses, he argued that the City never gave it a chance, never did all it had talked about doing to make the idea work.
“I can see why it has not been the success that we hoped it would be because the incentives didn’t happen, the infrastructure improvements didn’t happen, and more things have been built there under the old zoning,” Wagner said. “So, there’s lots of things that worked against the original concept, but I am still for trying to make the original concept work as the best use of that property, and not the highest use.”
Protecting the park
Councilman Bill Peloza asked planning staff whether there was any way to keep the Environmental Park area for potential future development while rezoning it.
No, not in the way Peloza described, responded Kevin Snyder, director of Community Development and Public Works.
And he shouldered much of the responsibility for the failure of the incentive package.
“We struggled because a lot of the incentives were ones that didn’t come easy, but the work on that was not completed,” Snyder said. “But, and speaking for myself only, a lot of the Environmental Park zoning designation was an abject failure. And it was an abject failure because … there was not enough front-end work done. We didn’t really understand the market forces, we didn’t understand what we needed to do to attract the type of businesses Councilman Wagner is talking about to our area and to set up an incentive package that would work. And I think we’re still in that position.
“We have current property owners that are hampered by the EP zoning designation. If the council has an interest in going forward with something more robust, we really need to go back to square one, and start over, and really look at this from the context of engaging with those property owners,” Snyder said. “And remember, we also have a fair number of residential properties down there as well that need to be considered. I think we really need to do some sub-area planning, where we really take our time, work with council, work with the community to put this together in a way that’s going to work, and really understand the market forces that are at play. Because, since 2006, a lot has changed in the marketplace, and what people are looking for in the work space and the places they want to work have changed as well, and I think that is the path to success.”
Wagner suggested “a hybrid process” that would help out the affected property owners on the south side of the zone while still working for the best use of at least the northern portion.
“I don’t know if there are four council members that would vote against this when it comes before the council next week, but I certainly will. But if it were reworked to do something like ‘only do the south portion and commit to a program where the city commits an application for the north portion,’ I would vote for it,” Wagner said.