About 80 people signed up to speak to the three county commissioners, testifying well into the afternoon. Crowds filled the main courtroom of the county courthouse, overflowing into two additional rooms.
Signs from members of Stop Taking Our Property Thurston County stating “Your buffers steal our land” and “Thurston County Commissioners: Making pocket gophers more important than people” hung along the walls and in the driveway of the courthouse leading into the hearing.
Saturday’s meeting, aimed at giving the public a final chance to address the board, was the third and final hearing held on the issue in the past year. The first attracted about 300 people. Testimony was limited to three minutes.
A majority of those who testified Saturday opposed the proposed ordinance.
“This is unjustified and unfair,” said property owner Linda Buerger. “We ask that this be reconsidered.”
Buerger’s family purchased property in Rochester in the late 1940s that first was used to grow cucumbers, beans, peas and strawberries. The land is now a Christmas tree farm.
Buerger said the ordinance would classify part of their property as a wetland, which would lower their property value.
“We had a market analysis done (in 2006), and this land was valued at $3.5 million.” Buerger said. “Now with this proposal, our land would be almost worthless.”
Loralin Toney owns 12 acres just outside Tenino, 10 of which are wetlands, and said the ordinance saved her property when industrial and commercial groups tried to build on adjacent lands.
“They prevented my land from becoming less valuable from large industrial areas above me,” she said.
Associate Planner Andrew Deffobis highlighted some of the proposed ordinance’s major changes, including changes to buffers, title mitigation zones and critical aquifer-recharge areas where water gets back into groundwater that is used for drinking water.
The county’s interim prairie-conservation ordinance is included in the proposed CAO.
Several speakers questioned the science used by county planning staffers to develop the ordinance.
“I don’t understand how you folks think that you know what’s best for my land, regardless of your education, your science, your belief in science, your meetings – it’s just incredible,” said Terry Schrader, who owns property near Great Wolf Lodge. “This isn’t really about the science; it’s about people’s lives, people’s property and the freedom to use your property.”
Some suggested the county should have tried to work with property owners on environmental issues instead of mandating rules.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s a very fair trade to just impose these kinds of restrictions without even investigating the idea that maybe people are willing to do this,” said property owner Susan Ensign. “What if we try to do a more collaborative effort?”
Several requested the commissioners show the public numbers demonstrating how the proposed ordinance would financially affect the county’s economy and land values.
The planners highlighted five misconceptions brought to their attention at the beginning of the hearing:
• Wetland buffers will remain between 50 and 300 feet, not extended to 500 feet, as rumored.
• Existing homes in critical areas, referred to as nonconforming structures, will be able to continue to be used in their current form. In the case of a natural disaster, including a fire, they could be rebuilt in the same footprint.
• The ordinance has language allowing for existing homes to be remodeled within reasonable use.
• Homeowners would be able to replace wells and septic systems.
• The Sheriff’s Office has not removed anyone because of the critical-areas ordinance, with the exception of condemned properties.