Anyone who plans to build in unincorporated Thurston County between now and the summer of 2016 is encouraged to submit their permit applications by Monday.
The reason? Gopher reviews.
In June, Thurston County began using a review process that was recommended by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in response to the Mazama pocket gopher being added to the Endangered Species list in April 2014.
The new gopher-review portion of the building permit process can include up to three property site visits that can be conducted only between June 1 and Oct. 30, according to county associate planner Andrew Deffobis. The visits must be at least 30 days apart, and include a three- or four-person team of county, state or federal prairie experts who walk the property and look at soils, vegetation and other physical characteristics of the land, checking for signs of protected species, according to the county’s website.
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Since early June, the county has conducted about 165 site visits on about 130 properties, he said.
“As a rough estimate, we have found gophers on about 15 percent of properties,” Deffobis said.
If gophers are present, property owners must work directly with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to develop an individual habitat conservation plan to protect the species. That might include building a house on another area of the property or performing some type of mitigation effort, according to Deffobis.
There’s a “full suite of options” that builders and developers can look into, but they’ll have to work that out with federal officials, Deffobis said.
If gophers are not found, the county’s permitting process continues as normal.
The cost of a gopher screening is included in the price of permits. However, some property owners have been ordering them without a permit so they can confirm or rule out gophers, in the event they want to sell or make other plans with their property, Deffobis said.
“We’re getting a lot of those,” he said of the optional screenings.
Troy Nichols, executive officer at Olympia Master Builders, a building trade association, said the gopher reviews are expected to put a crimp in South Sound’s building season, particularly in the rural areas of the county.
“I think that the notice that the county just sent out sort of helps illustrate how short the building season is because of the gopher listing,” Nichols said. “If you haven’t submitted the application by then, then you’re pretty much out of luck until next May when the gopher stops hibernating (or becomes active enough that their presence can be determined).”
Nichols said he hasn’t heard yet from any of his organization’s members about major building projects that have been delayed or affected by the presence of gophers.
However, he said he has heard from members who are using the presence of gophers as a way to challenge their county tax assessment, in an effort to lower their tax bills.
‘If you’re limited to what you can do with your property, then it’s not worth as much,” Nichols said. “I think you’re probably going to see a lot more of that in the future, which isn’t good for the county because it will cost revenues.”