Property owners get ready to fight

THURSTON COUNTY: They say new rules for sensitive lands would harm them

March 7, 2011 

Property owners get ready to fight

Speaking to a packed audience in Rochester's Swede Hall on Sunday evening, STOP Thurston County organizer Glen Morgan begins a town hall meeting called so that property owners could discuss strategies to fight changes in the county's critical-areas ordinance.

BY STEVE BLOOM — The Olympian

Thurston County says its critical-areas ordinance, adopted in 1994, needs to be updated to protect the health and safety of dwindling wildlife areas and its habitat before even stricter federal regulations are put into place.

The Freedom Foundation and those who live on or near critical areas have heard those arguments but question the county’s motives and say the update harms property owners.

A crowd of about 200 gathered Sunday night in Rochester to discuss how to effectively fight the regulation.

“I think we cannot only stop this, I think we can reverse this,” said Scott Roberts, property-rights director for the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based think tank that is sponsoring the STOP (Stop Taking Our Property) Thurston County project.

The critical-areas ordinance update, required to comply with the state Growth Management Act, regulates how development and redevelopment can occur on sensitive lands such as prairies, wetlands and frequently flooded areas, according to the county. A 2003 amendment to the state Growth Management Act requires the county to comprehensively review the ordinance every seven years to make sure it’s keeping up with state laws.

The county planning department said that with nearly all remaining Puget Sound prairie and Oregon white oak woodland habitats found on public property, a balance needs to be struck between developing that land and preserving the habitat and the species.

“Because the prairies are reduced, the species depending on them are declining,” said planning director Scott Clark in an interview last week.

Clark added that determining the status of these species now could limit harsher regulation if one of the species ends up being federally listed.

Glen Morgan, project manager for STOP Thurston County who spoke at the meeting at Swede Hall, says the county is leaning too far on the side of protection, and, in doing so, it could actually be hurting the environment.

“Number one, it’s very punishing to people,” he said. “What we’re finding is, thousands of people are being harmed by it across the county.”

Morgan said property owners could resort to destroying critical areas rather than deal with the regulations and fines, and that the county should create incentives rather than force property owners to spend money on surveys.

While some people in attendance Sunday had been fighting the county for years on the issue, others came with little knowledge, simply wanting to know how their property could be affected.

Julie Black of Rochester looked at a map outlining areas that have pocket gopher soil and planted her finger where her property sits. She said she and her husband live on about 20 acres and would someday develop the remaining acreage for their children.

“We want to see what this will do for our future,” Black said of the proposed updates.

One of the most contentious aspects of the update is how to handle the Mazama pocket gopher. STOP organizers say people’s property, livelihood and checkbooks are in danger because the county has decided to protect “rodent pests” without ample proof they need help.

The county disagrees.

According to a critical-areas fact sheet released by the planning department, the Mazama pocket gopher is a protected species under the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and an assessment will soon begin by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to determine whether the animal and three other species should be classified threatened or endangered. The county also said that early conservation efforts will benefit land owners by regulations at the local level.

Some property owners aren’t so sure the animal needs saving.

Robert Grayless lives on about 5 acres in Tenino that has both oak trees and pocket gophers. He came to the meeting to learn more about the ordinance but said the only problem he has with the gopher is there are too many of them.

“I don’t see many disappearing,” he said.

The proposed updates, which Morgan said the group will counter with its own proposal, will also hit some people in the wallet.

Morgan discussed the “extremely abusive” habitat-management plans, which the county says typically costs $3,000. However, the planning department is considering provisions for the plans that could allow property owners to build into buffer areas and possibly not require the plan if gophers are found outside prairie areas.

The two sides also disagree on the quality of communication between the county and concerned residents.

“Without exception, the commissioners and county staff are ignoring the concerns being raised by the people affected by this,” Morgan said, citing the recent public hearing that saw about 60 people speak out against interim regulations with the commission still voting for it.

“If there’s anyone who has been left out of the conversation, it’s been us,” he told the crowd.

Both the county and the Freedom Foundation have gone out into the community to discuss the proposed changes.

Late last year, the county held several open houses to outline the major changes and get public input. A public hearing will also be held once the planning commission moves forward on the draft ordinance.

Sunday’s meeting was the second in four days. The first meeting, also held at Swede Hall, saw 110 people attend and about 60 people sign up to volunteer, Morgan said. Six other meetings have been scheduled.

Nate Hulings: 360-754-5476

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