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In Ruston, three council members refuse to play fair

The hero strode into the old Ruston schoolhouse Monday fixin’ to save the town. But Mike Cohen didn’t notice that the town bullies, disguised as elected officials, had slipped off his white hat and slapped a note on his back that read, “Kick me.”

You can’t save a town from itself, it turns out.

You can rename Ruston the Town of Limbo. Because that’s where Point Ruston – Cohen’s massive undertaking to redevelop the old smelter site – finds itself.

Three Town Council members spent months nitpicking Point Ruston’s plan to build 35 luxury homes on the reclaimed promontory where Asarco’s copper smelter stack once spewed poisonous arsenic.

Finally, after another two-hour public debate Monday night, Cohen conceded to the nit Robert Everding, Wayne Stebner and Mary Joyce had picked. He agreed to remove two homes to preserve designated view corridors.

Yes, views demand sensitive handling. Cohen had lowered the lots so the rooftops of those two homes would sit just 10 feet higher than Asarco’s old hill. The two homes wouldn’t have blocked views from other homes. They would have partly obscured the view of only a person walking up to them.

No matter, the council trio wanted their technicality and got it.

But like schoolyard bullies never satisfied with stealing your lunch money, Everding, Stebner and Joyce won the concession for which they’d fought – then they immediately voted down Cohen’s Stack Hill proposal 3-2.

Everding and Stebner – despite pleadings from fellow Councilmen Del Brewer and Robert Pudlo, from Mayor Michael Transue, from Cohen, from Cohen’s attorney, from their own Planning Commission chairman and from several residents – gave no public explanation of their votes. They offered no public comment on what Cohen needed to do to make them happy enough to allow anything on Stack Hill.

Joyce, at least, offered a flimsy explanation that confirmed she ignored the facts and chose to march to the beat of her own drum.

Despite testimony and an offer of technical evidence from Cohen and a former Asarco official that the current elevation of cleaned-up Stack Hill sits roughly 20 feet lower than during the smelter days, Joyce explained how she lives above the hill, has watched the work and believes otherwise.

“I read it, and I didn’t buy it,” she said.

You want to give the elected townsfolk the benefit of the doubt.

They don’t have their own full-time planning staff. They contract for it. They don’t have their own full-time town attorney; they contract for legal advice, too. Contractors, by their nature, don’t like to rock the majority’s party boat by speaking boldly about a right course of action. Or they might find themselves uncontracted.

Perhaps Cohen’s willingness to risk $28 million to finish cleaning up the mess Asarco left behind, his willingness to pay more than $20 million to Asarco for development rights and still make a profit, and the sheer scale of 97-acre Point Ruston simply outstrips the capacity of volunteer, Mayberry-minded folks to handle.

But Everding gets no slack from me.

After Tuesday’s meeting, I asked him to explain himself.

Why should we just accept Cohen’s proposal? Everding said. It’s just the first one to come along. What about other options, like commercial development or a nice restaurant, on Stack Hill?

For a second, he almost had me buying his shtick.

Then it hit me. Ruston adopted the rules for development of Stack Hill. Cohen owns Stack Hill. The town’s rule book allows up to 90 lots and buildings up to 55 feet high. Cohen wants to build 35 homes up to 30 feet high – less than what the town’s rules allow. Cohen’s project plays within the rules.

Besides, since October, Everding and pals have forced Point Ruston to endure scrutiny during eight public meetings between the Planning Commission and the council. Not one Rustonite has argued for dumping Point Ruston’s luxury homes concept for office buildings, restaurants and shops.

So, Mr. Everding, I asked, if Mr. Cohen came back to you with a different proposal with a mix of uses for Stack Hill, you would approve it?

“No,” Everding said.

Stebner declined to explain why he voted against Cohen’s proposal, saying only that the city attorney advised him not to say anything.

“It’s frustrating,” Cohen said Tuesday. “Because you can’t rely on any logic. … We kind of fell into this nightmare, and it’s been one incredible thing after another.”

Next, Cohen said, he plans to revisit the Ruston Planning Commission on June 12 and demand approval of his plat. If he gets it, he’ll get one final chance with the Town Council.

Cohen shouldn’t expect a different result. Everding, Stebner and Joyce could give Barnum & Bailey a run for their circus management money.

Unless, however, one of them has a change of heart about Mike Cohen and Point Ruston, what looked a year ago like a godsend for a town pillaged by pollution will wind up in an unnecessary and expensive court battle.

“The last thing I want to do is pay (my attorney) to go to court,” Cohen said. “Anyone in court is already a loser. It’s just a matter of who loses worse.

“I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope the public in Ruston will let these specific council members know they need to play fair.”

This article originally appeared in the The News Tribune

Dan Voelpel: 253-597-8785

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