Pierce County neighbors divided over planned homeless micro-village

It’s no secret the Puget Sound region is experiencing a growing homeless crisis. So, why are some Pierce County leaders hoping to backtrack on a vote that cleared the way for a major new micro-village?

To clarify, none of the opponents of the micro-village are actually against the idea of building more housing for the homeless. However, they wish it was being built somewhere "less pristine."

No matter the outcome of the political back-and-forth, the 285-unit micro-village planned for the 80-plus acre site near Spanaway will still get built.

But the question is whether it will be looked at as a positive housing solution in the future or an ecological eyesore.

Opponents of the decision to build there say high-intensity builds, like a micro-village, shouldn't be going into so-called residential resource zones, because they take a large toll on the environment.

"For example, the residential resource zone in the area that we are talking about is surrounded by other housing developments," said Robyn Denson, Pierce County councilor representing District 7. "But, there are other services within the urban growth area. Normally, other zones in that area are fine to develop. This zone has wetlands, a watershed area for Spanaway Lake. There's Coffee Creek going through it."

The micro-village was green-lit by the county council this spring, but it wasn’t a unanimous decision.

Councilor Denson voted against it along with Councilor Amy Cruver. Now, both councilors are trying to repeal that vote from March.

"I want to make sure that moving forward, we are not setting a precedent for high-intensity developments in ecologically and environmentally sensitive areas," Denson said.

If the repeal gets enough votes this month, no other large housing facility would be able to build in a residential resource zone -- whether it's a micro-village for the homeless or a luxury, high-rise apartment.

"We want to make sure we've got a really good set of tools in our shared housing code, so that we can develop in areas where they are appropriate," Denson said. "Areas where they are not environmentally insensitive. Where we have public safety and we have transportation. We have water, sewer, sidewalks and all of the things that we should have when we are inviting a lot of people to live there."

Denson clarified she is not against micro-villages or finding solutions to the homeless crisis. She said, correcting the past vote only to look out for future environmental needs of the community. However, staff at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, which is managing the micro-village – aren’t so sure.

"We're in the process right now of getting community support and developers, fundraisers," said Myron Bernard, senior director of community engagement at Tacoma Rescue Mission. "Getting everyone to understand a vision. When there is a zoning change or when zoning changes are rescinded. It can kind of communicate that Pierce County isn't behind this project. And we know that's not the case, Pierce County is behind this project but they're trying to be mindful of all the neighbors that are involved.

Bernard said it's hard not to feel the council members are sending the wrong message at a time of the region’s mounting homeless crisis.

"We want to show with Pierce County that there is a unified front of community, of community members, of local government and ordinances -- all working together to say, it's important for us all to solve housing and homelessness and the crises that's affecting our community," Bernard said.

Bernard said the mission understands the environmental concerns in this zone. However, he assures the plans for the micro-village will be much less taxing on the land than a typical development.

The vote on whether the county will repeal happens at the end of this month.