The standoff between pocket gophers and developers in unincorporated Thurston County has reached an apparent detente.
Thurston County officials have settled on a process to screen building and development applications that includes a Critical Areas Ordinance review that considers the impact on Mazama pocket gophers and other species. Anyone planning to build in unincorporated Thurston County before October 2016 is urged to apply for permits as soon as possible, the county announced Thursday.
In April 2014, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials listed four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A threatened species is one that’s likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future if steps aren’t taken to protect it.
The gophers — known as the Olympia, the Roy Prairie, the Tenino and the Yelm pocket gophers — are found only in Thurston and Pierce counties. Along with the listing, Fish and Wildlife officials designated 1,607 acres in Thurston County as critical habitat for the Olympia, Tenino and Yelm pocket gophers.
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The application screening process requires two to three site visits by a team of county and Fish and Wildlife prairie experts between June and October. In order to complete the visits by October, officials recommend applications be submitted by July 31.
If no gopher activity is found during the visits, a permit will be granted, according to County Commissioner Bud Blake. Blake, however, is not convinced the review process is the right answer and voted against it in June.
“If there’s any sign of gopher activity, you’re doomed. You can’t go forward,” Blake said.
The problem, he said, is uncertainty about how far habitat protection goes: Is it the hole, the area around the hole, or the soils leading up to the habitat?
“At some point you’ve got to call it where private property starts and conservation starts,” he said.
“There will be a fair number that will pass all three inspections and will have some success, and there will be some that don’t,” he said. “When the building season is over, we’ll look at it and see how it went.”
Commissioner Sandra Romero said that the county is obligated to follow federal and state law. “We’re trying our best to work with people and protect the environment,” she said of the process which has been underway for more than four years.
County Director of Resource Stewardship Scott Clark said in a press release, “Now that the county has a process in place for 2015, we believe this will help developers get financing. Banks have been reluctant to finance major construction projects in Thurston County without it.”
The inspections are free to applicants, although regular permit fees still apply. A federal grant will help Fish and Wildlife and the county cover the screening costs.
The process can’t start soon enough for Robert Ilosky. He bought a half acre of a former hayfield in Rochester in August, with the intention of putting a manufactured home on it. His contractor applied for permits in December and was told in January that it would be June until permits were possible. Now, Ilosky is waiting for the three inspections, which will take until fall to complete.
“I’d like to move in tomorrow,” said Ilosky, 75. He wants to move closer to his stepchildren. Ilosky said he looked for the right property for five years and there was no mention of gophers or habitat concerns when he closed the deal last summer.
“If I can’t build there, I’d like to donate the property to whoever first found the gophers,” he said. “Let them pay the taxes.”