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Editorial: The toll of Trumpeter

Sometimes when you hold public office you help build a monument or have a hand in finding creative ways to fill real needs. Other times you just get to mop up the mess.

Pierce County supervisors and their attorneys have been knee-deep in mop water lately.

While criticism from some quarters has been harsh, you'll hear little scorn from us on the settlement of the Trumpeter Development suit. Trumpeter is a large housing development in the town of Oak Grove near Prescott.

It goes without saying that the $1.4-million payout is a lot of money, money wrung from us taxpayers. But we'd be hard pressed to point to a place or time where county supervisors, past or present, went wrong on this issue.

The Land Management Committee members who first dealt with Trumpeter wanted, and thought they could arrange, a significant public park in a part of the county that doesn't have one.

That sounded great.

County law allowed the committee to require a subdivision developer to set aside 10% of his land, in this case about 70 acres, for a park. But instead, over just a couple of years, the Trumpeter developers brought in a series of smaller developments, and the county accepted a per-lot fee in place of land dedication.

Then when the last set of lots came in for approval, the committee drew the line and insisted on land rather than money. When Trumpeter developers wouldn't agree to that, the committee delayed and then rejected the documents that would have allowed development to continue.

While Pierce County Judge Robert Wing at first chastised the developers for apparently trying to avoid the land dedication requirement, he later agreed that the committee couldn't demand parkland.

Then the courts ruled that the county's insurance company didn't provide coverage in this case, in effect telling county officials that any damages would be paid directly by county taxpayers.

Ironically the amount of damages could have been left up to county residents, or at least a jury made up of county residents.

At that point the issue wasn't whether the county would pay; it was how much it would pay.

While it might have seemed a risk for Trumpeter to rely on a jury of Pierce County taxpayers to set what was in effect their own penalty, no one in the courtroom would have been allowed to tell the jurors that damages wouldn't be covered by insurance. As one County Board member said: "Juries hate insurance companies."

So at nearly the last minute, a majority of supervisors voted to pay up and settle.

Since the money will be taken from funds in the current county budget, it's reasonable to suspect that supervisors and county finance officers have been aligning accounts for a payout.

Certainly the money came from the taxpayers' pockets, and there isn't one of us who couldn't think of a dozen better uses for the money.

But the reality is, the cost could have been much higher.

County Board members aren't the only ones relieved that the decade-long debacle is over.