Thurston County Commissioners are looking for feedback on a proposed code that would basically roll 11 land use enforcement regulations into one.
County officials say it’s all about consolidation and staff efficiency. But some residents feel it’s a power grab by county government.
“The way this has been drafted, it’s just an invitation for abuse,” said property rights activist Glen Morgan, 44, who lives between Tenino and Rochester. “…The language has substantially changed to allow loose rules around criminal and civil prosecution.”
The proposal would create Title 26, a code to address land use enforcement issues in unincorporated Thurston County. If adopted, it would give the county’s Resource Stewardship division “the authority to issue civil penalties to those who violate land use regulations in certain circumstances,” according to a county news release.
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About 30 pages of county code would need to be updated to reflect the changes, according to background materials provided in a recent Board of County Commissioners agenda packet.
Although it’s basically bringing several existing rules under the same one for enforcement issues, the new code also would give the county some more teeth in dealing with problem property owners.
“The new title adds civil penalties and liens, allows penalties and infractions to be issued to the violator, and simplifies the table of penalties and the infraction process,” associate planner Katie Pruit wrote in an agenda item summary for the commissioners.
Civil infractions have existed in code for years, but the new code would permit civil penalties, such as fines that accrue on a daily basis in certain circumstances, county manager Cliff Moore said.
The county Health Department already issues about 10 to 12 civil penalties a year.
“They’re only used for the most egregious violations,” Moore said. “For example, if we have a septic system that has failed and is polluting groundwater (and not being taken care of by the property owner), then we have more of an enforcement tool.”
Twenty-one people spoke at a public hearing on the new code March 3. Most were in opposition. At the end of the meeting, county commissioners opted to extend the deadline until Friday to accept public input on the issue.
County officials say the new code will ensure that compliance actions, regardless of the code violation, will be consistent. Common land use violations vary from junk vehicles and building projects without permits to illegally filled wetlands and cut trees that are protected due to environmental rules.
“There’s no new criminal enforcement provisions; there’s been a lot of confusion about that,” Pruit said in an interview with The Olympian. “…This doesn’t give us the ability to enter your home without permission. There’s been a lot of confusion that it’s giving us some rights we don’t have.”
Robert Schilt, 69, who lives near Rainier, said he believes county officials are being deceptive, and that the code is part of a larger effort to destroy the rural way of life. He also believes it gives the county government too much power.
“It gives them almost police powers,” he said. “A neighbor can turn you in for something, and a code enforcement officer can come out and visit your property for that infraction ... and then cite you for other things.”
Schilt, who is Thurston County chapter president of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, said there’s a growing campaign to try to stop the county commissioners from adopting Title 26.
“The people I’ve talked to are not going away,” he said. “They’re going to continue this fight because they see this as an assault to their rights to own property, and that is the basic right under all of our rights in the U.S. Constitution.”
Comments on the Proposed Title 26 will be accepted until 5 p.m. Friday and can be emailed to PruitK@co.thurston.wa.us or dropped off at Thurston County Resource Stewardship Department, Land Use and Permitting, Attn: Katie Knight Pruit, 2000 Lakeridge Dr. SW, Olympia.