OLYMPIA - Thurston County's controversial critical-areas ordinance has stirred residents' passions, and the county Planning Department chose a different venue for tonight's public meeting in case they boil over.
The Thurston County Planning Commission meeting, which includes discussion of the ordinance, will be held in a Thurston County Superior Court room for the safety of everyone involved, planning director Scott Clark said. The courthouse has security officers and a metal detector.
“These are serious issues, and the emotions are running high and elevated,” he said.
The ordinance, which regulates development on property in areas such as prairies and other sensitive lands, is being questioned by some who own land in potentially affected areas as well as the Freedom Foundation, a local think tank that lists limited government and individual liberty as among its missions.
Clark said there has been no specific threat against the county, but said planning commissioners told him their personal space was violated in recent meetings. Sheriff John Snaza said his office is not aware of anything that would raise safety concerns.
The courtroom likely will remain the home for future planning commission meetings as the ordinance moves through the draft phase.
Critics say the move creates more roadblocks and sends the wrong message to residents who want to voice their opinion.
“I think it’s an absurd measure, personally,” said Scott Roberts, property-rights director for the Freedom Foundation. The intensity of the debate has escalated since the foundation formed STOP Thurston County, an organized opposition to the county’s proposed updates. Since its formation, STOP organizers have held several public meetings in Rochester attended by hundreds of people. The group’s sharpest criticisms have focused around prairie regulations and the status of the Mazama pocket gopher.
The group’s logo has taken heat from the county.
Clark calls STOP’s logo troubling, saying it appears to depict blood spatter. The program calls that silly, saying it is a stop sign with an outline of the county.
As interest grows around the proposed regulations, a courtroom that can hold nearly 200 people might be the best location for future meetings, court administrator Marti Maxwell said.
Maxwell said the Planning Department requested two court security officers for the evening and, depending on scheduling, any overtime would be paid out of the department’s budget.
The STOP group has offered to debate the ordinance with the three county commissioners, saying public hearings on the matter don’t result in enough conversation.
“If they really want to have a discussion about this, let’s go down to The Evergreen State College, sit down and have an open public debate with them on the merits of the issue,” Roberts said.
Vice chairwoman Sandra Romero said the commission was not interested in a debate because “it would imply we had already made up our minds.”
“We don’t want the conversation to be polarizing,” Romero said, who added that meetings and public hearings provide an ongoing discussion to work toward an outcome.
Nate Hulings: 360-754-5476 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/outsideoly