Heidi Plaas absolutely loves the property she lives on west of Rochester.
Her only problem? Thurston County loves her property too — a little too well for her liking. Plaas believes the county government is overreaching in its current efforts to protect native species by extending an ordinance designed to protect native prairie and oak habitat.
“I get what they’re doing, but I don’t like them coming in here and telling us what we can and can’t do with our property,” Plaas said. “It seems like we’re able to do less and less with our property anymore.”
Time is nearly up for the Interim Prairie Conservation Ordinance, which tightened regulation and governance of landowners who want to develop in areas in which native species are dwindling. The ordinance was approved in July 2009 for one year. As it stands, the ordinance requires property owners on or within 600 feet of a critical area to compile and get county approval of a report identifying how developmental effects will be minimized in the area. The report is required for prairie and oak habitat at least one acre in size.
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“There’s got to be something they can spend their time on rather than telling landowners how to use their property,” Plaas said.
Those concerns didn’t fall on deaf ears at the county level. District 3 Commissioner Karen Valenzuela, who serves Grand Mound and Rochester, says three changes are proposed to the ordinance: a requirement for industrial and commercial uses to include a habitat management plan; exclusion of certain soils from the table defining what prairie soils are; and the biggest change, excluding lots totaling one acre or less in size that contain prairie soils.
“The property rights argument is anathema to good land use and good land planning,” Valenzuela said. “But (the commission) did have conversations with small-property owners and I believe we came up with a good solution.”
Thurston County’s major problem is that native plant species, such as Oregon oak, and native animals, such as the Mazama pocket gopher, have suffered dwindling populations for a variety of reasons.
The gophers are of special concern, say Derek Stinson with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife — mainly because human development into their native areas are forcing the normally sedentary creatures out.
“Years ago, a lot of the land that the gophers roamed freely on was converted to farmland, and now people are developing that into subdivisions and neighborhoods,” Stinson said.
“Gophers can’t exactly get up and go anywhere. …They’re pretty finicky about the type of soil they can live in.”
Despite the ordinance, residents have gone to great lengths to rid their property of gophers by trapping them or outright killing them. In March, Rochester resident Christopher Weaver was accused by state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials of illegally trapping on his undeveloped land. The DFW asked the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to charge Weaver with unlawful use of body traps and unlawful taking of a protected species.
“We just want landowners to respect the fact resources in our rural areas require protection,” Valenzuela said. “We’re down to 3 percent of our total land in Thurston County being prairie land and we need to preserve what we can.”
Wildlife biologists say the issue is going to stick around as long as threatened species remain such, and property development continues in Thurston County.
“The entire problem isn’t going to go away quickly,” Stinson said. “As long as you have property owners and development of any sort, there will always be a clash of ideals.”