Pierce County could be the first county to implement a local option under the Regional Centers Framework, an arm of the Regional Growth Strategy in the regional long-range plan known as VISION 2040. Authorized by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) last year, the updated Regional Centers Framework allows counties to designate Countywide Centers. Ordinance No. 2019-70s approved by the Pierce County Council last week begins a 180-day process that could conclude with the establishment of 14 Countywide Centers and companion updates to the countywide planning policies on Regional Centers. Kitsap County may also be hot on the heels of Pierce County where a similar proposal is currently under consideration.

Where Regional Centers are currently designated by the Puget Sound Regional Council. (Puget Sound Regional Council)
Where Regional Centers are currently designated by the Puget Sound Regional Council. (Puget Sound Regional Council)

Right now, Pierce County’s Comprehensive Plan only identifies five Regional Growth Centers and two Manufacturing/Industrial Centers while acknowledging that jurisdictions may recognize Centers of Local Importance. The Comprehensive Plan also identifies several candidate Regional Growth Centers and Manufacturing/Industrial Centers. The update would formally acknowledge the elevation of three Centers by the PSRC in addition to the 14 new Countywide Centers.

Regional Centers in Pierce County

 Existing Comprehensive Plan DesignationsProposed Comprehensive Plan Designations
Designated Centers
Regional Growth Centers- Tacoma Central Business District
- Tacoma Mall
- Lakewood
- Puyallup Downtown
- Puyallup South Hill
- Tacoma Central Business District
- Tacoma Mall
- Lakewood
- Puyallup Downtown
- Puyallup South Hill
- University Place
Manufacturing/Industrial Centers- Frederickson
- Port of Tacoma
- Frederickson
- Port of Tacoma
- Sumner/Pacific
Candidate Centers
Regional Growth Centers- University Place
- None
Manufacturing /Industrial Centers- South Tacoma
- Sumner/Pacific
- South Tacoma

While Countywide Centers recognized by the PSRC come in two flavors, the initial batch proposed for designation in Pierce County are only planned to be Countywide Growth Centers, which are generally meant for residential, commercial, and mixed-use activities. Counties are also allowed to designate Countywide Industrial Centers. Pierce County would acknowledge this in its comprehensive plan, leaving the door open for such future designations should local jurisdictions come forward with supportable designation applications meeting established criteria.

The proposed update to the Pierce County’s Comprehensive Plan explains the difference well:

Countywide Growth Centers serve important roles as places for concentrating jobs, housing, shopping, and recreational opportunities. These are often smaller downtowns, high-capacity transit station areas, or neighborhood Centers that are linked by transit, provide a mix of housing and services, and serve as focal points for local and county investment.

Countywide Industrial Centers serve as important local industrial areas. These areas support living wage jobs and serve a key role in the county’s manufacturing/industrial economy.

From Pierce County’s proposed countywide planning policies legislation, 2019.

The proposed Countywide Centers are split amongst Tacoma, Sumner, Bonney Lake, Ruston, Fircrest, and University Place. Several of these are proposed as joint Countywide Centers between two or more local jurisdictions, meaning that they would cross city boundaries. The full list of locations are as follows:

Proposed Countywide Centers in Pierce County

Jurisdicition(s)Countywide Growth CentersCountywide Industrial Centers
Bonney Lake- Downtown Bonney Lake - None
Sumner- Sumner Town Center- None
Tacoma- Lincoln
- Lower Pacific
- McKinley
- Narrows
- Proctor
- Tacoma Central
- Upper Portland Avenue
- Upper Pacific
- None
Tacoma and Ruston- Ruston and Tacoma- None
Tacoma, Fircrest, and University Place- James Center- None
The proposed locations of Countywide Centers in Pierce County. (Pierce County)
The proposed locations of Countywide Centers in Pierce County. (Pierce County)

The benefit of Regional Centers and Countywide Centers is that they are eligible for substantial investments from pass-through federal dollars allocated by the PSRC. This generally comes in the form of federal transportation funding. Of course, Regional Centers are a higher priority for such investments since they support much higher levels of jobs, housing, and residents than Countywide Centers. But the Countywide Centers designation will offer such locales a much better competitive advantage than being Centers of Local Importance or having no designation of regional or countywide clout when it comes to seeking funding. In terms of process, the PSRC will merely evaluate countywide planning policies, which technically involves Countywide Centers but not specifically reviewed because of them, for consistency and certification with regional planning policies. This process does not to formally designate them as part of the regional long-range plan.

To be designated as a Countywide Center, there are several high-level criteria that must be met by local jurisdictions. The PSRC established the most significant criteria for regional consideration, but Pierce County’s countywide planning policies can be more prescriptive. The general criteria, however, is outlined in the following table, which is proposed for addition to Pierce County’s Comprehensive Plan:

The key criteria used in determining regionally if an area can qualify as a Countywide Center. (Pierce County)
The key criteria used in determining regionally if an area can qualify as a Countywide Center. (Pierce County)

The process for designating Countywide Centers began very early this year with the Pierce County Regional Council (PCRC), which consists of membership from the county and local jurisdictions. The PCRC is responsible for establishing consensus around countywide issues, such as updates to countywide planning policies. The PCRC was supportive of the 14 Countywide Centers applications, which were then forwarded to the Pierce County Planning Commission for consideration. The planning commission, too, was supportive of the proposal.

In September, the Pierce County Council then took up the issue with Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young (D-District 7) sponsoring it. The county council finally passed the proposal on a five-to-one vote (Councilmember Jim McCune, R-District 3, was the only member opposed) last week. However, process still remains for final adoption.

Under the terms of legislation, at least 60% of local jurisdictions representing at least 75% of total population must approve the updated countywide planning policies for the new Countywide Centers to become effective. The period for ratification is 180 days from November 12th. It is widely expected to receive approval however.

A unique quirk to the process is that the only way for the proposal to fail is if jurisdictions to take affirmative action to disapprove; taking no action to cast a vote is still automatically considered to be an affirmative vote to approve, though local jurisdictions are likely to cast affirmative votes to approve to memorialize their support, especially if the jurisdiction is poised to benefit from one of the new Countywide Centers.

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