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Thurston County couple at wit’s end over pocket gophers delaying new home

Deborah McLain stands with her dog, Benji, at the Thurston County Courthouse. McLain and her husband, Steve, have been trying to secure a pocket gopher development permit to build a house on a half-acre of their 8-acre plot of land south of Tumwater since last April. She said the county should develop an interim process allowing people to secure the permits.
Deborah McLain stands with her dog, Benji, at the Thurston County Courthouse. McLain and her husband, Steve, have been trying to secure a pocket gopher development permit to build a house on a half-acre of their 8-acre plot of land south of Tumwater since last April. She said the county should develop an interim process allowing people to secure the permits. The Chronicle (Centralia)

One Thurston County resident is considering a hunger strike after county commissioners failed to vote on approving a building permit for her would-be farm south of Tumwater due to concerns over the Mazama pocket gopher.

Deborah McLain and her husband have been trying to build a home on a half-acre of an 8-acre plot south of the Thurston County town for around a year, but have not been able to due to the lack of a county-issued permit.

The county could have offered her relief had they voted to approve a permit, but McLain said the commissioners did not bring it to a vote at their Tuesday meeting.

“We really thought this is it, finally, after a year we’re going to get approved,” McLain said.

The commissioners had discussed voting to approve their permit at a meeting earlier March 21, but ultimately decided not to.

Commissioner Gary Edwards, who McLain said had supported bringing the issue for a vote, said Thursday that the McLains’ situation must be reviewed by the county’s legal team.

The process for the McLains’ permit, as well as other permits throughout the county, has been tied up with meetings between the county and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, he said.

“I think we’re still in the middle of negotiations with the federal folks over this,” Edwards said.

The county is working on an interim permitting plan that would allow people already in the system to seek and acquire building permits while more permanent regulations can be passed dealing with the pocket gopher issue.

If they were to approve permits without proper legal review, Edwards said, it could expose the county to litigation from environmental groups.

“There’s so many layers of restrictions, and that’s where the bureaucracy comes in,” Edwards said.

The Mazama pocket gopher is listed as a threatened species. Their preferred habitat is well-drained, easily-crumbled soil in prairies in Thurston and Pierce counties, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

The website said that an estimated 95 percent of the gopher’s habitat has been converted to other uses or developed for commercial or residential use. The fragmentation of suitable habitat has led to a declining population, which is more vulnerable to local extinction.

McLain said she was disappointed that her request for the $182 permit has not been issued. She said she and her husband had worked out an independent agreement with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which they had signed on to, but which the county still must approve and issue a permit.

“We feel like at this point, (the county) have had no intention of approving us, but they have strung us along,” McLain said.

The couple has already had an approved construction loan turned down due to the lengthy process, and they are renting until they receive a permit.

While McLain is not on a hunger strike, she said she may consider it.

“We’re moving, so I can’t do it this week, and I have to think about it,” she said.

Edwards said the county will continue to meet with Fish and Wildlife representatives to seek a solution for building permits in the county.

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