The development of critical areas took center stage Thursday night as hundreds of people packed the Thurston County Courthouse complex for a marathon public hearing, which pitted property rights against protections for the county’s woodland habitats.
Nearly 100 people spent three hours speaking – along with some shouting, applause and a few boos – before county commissioners decided to delay a decision to extend the prairie and oak woodlands conservation ordinance.
The interim six-month ordinance expires July 28 and will eventually roll into a larger critical-areas ordinance, which is making its way through the planning commission.
According to the county, less than one percent of the remaining prairie and Oregon white oak woodland habitat are contained in protected parks or reserves.
The prairie ordinance regulates property owners who want to develop or clear land on or within 600 feet of a prairie or Oregon white oak habitat. (Projects on existing footprints, impervious surfaces or minor road repairs are exempt).
If owners want to develop in prairie or white oak habitats, they may need a habitat management plan, which the county says costs $3,000.
Written public comment on the ordinance will be taken until July 15.
Speakers Thursday included a variety of county residents, including farmers, prairie property owners, city residents and business owners.
William Aldridge of Tenino spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying he’s had encounters with wildlife on his prairie land and said he’s set aside property for conservation.
“I wouldn’t take anything for that experience,” he said.
Olympia resident Cliff Snyder said he’s lived in the county since 1968 and said he’s tired of what he sees as the degradation of the environment.
“It is not a question of development versus environment,” he said. “We can have both, but in a logical, rational, scientifically based matter.”
Others spoke out against the county regulating private property, saying the ordinance is unbalanced, lacks common sense and needs more research.
Bruce Morgan, who owns prairie land near Tenino and said he has a background in land-use law and the state Growth Management Act, said the county is using “junk science” and “heavy-handedness” when it comes to protecting species that don’t need it.
“It’s wonderful to protect this prairie, but leave us along and let us protect it,” he said.
Grand Mound resident Terry Schrader said he owns 16 acres and has had issues with the county when he’s tried to cut timber he planted on his property.
‘If you don’t have private property, you don’t have nothing,” he said. “I’m a little pissed off.”
Those on both sides of the issue said the county should provide incentives for property owners who live on or near critical areas.
STOP Thurston County, a group created by the Freedom Foundation to oppose the county updates, was visible at the meeting, including handing out yard signs and buttons and busing in residents from south county.
The group has attacked protection of the Mazama pocket gopher, which they consider a pest. Many who came to Thursday’s meeting had grievances with the animal, but the ordinance under consideration doesn’t address regulations surrounding the gopher, according to the county.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is evaluating four prairie species, including the pocket gopher, as to whether they should be added to the federal endangered-species list. The gopher is listed as threatened by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Planning Director Scott Clark said that since 2007, the county has no records of property owners requesting a prairie plan. Even if the gopher didn’t exist, Clark said, the county still would have the duty to preserve prairie land.
Public hearings on the full critical-areas ordinance have not been scheduled.