Case Road residents raise concerns over religious organization’s development

On Case Road, in a rural area of Thurston County near Littlerock, “people look out for each other,” say Tracy Rindone and Jennifer Lyne, who have each lived in the area for more than 15 years.

About 14 homes are in the area, Rindone told The Olympian, most of which are adjacent to agricultural land.

In 2016, a religious organization called Youth With a Mission Faith Harvest Helpers (YWAM-FHH) bought about 30 acres in the neighborhood. And, true to what Rindone and Lyne told The Olympian, the neighbors were looking out.

On its overarching website, YWAM describes itself as “a global movement of Christians from many cultures, age groups, and Christian traditions dedicated to serving Jesus throughout the world” with more than 1,100 locations in over 180 countries.

YWAM-FHH, specifically, describes itself online as located in the Pacific Northwest, with food banks at the Case Road address and in Lacey. In a video on the YWAM-FHH website, Executive Director Paul Shorb describes the vision for the Case Road campus as “to grow it into a YWAM base.”

When The Olympian visited the YWAM-FHH site for comment, an employee relayed a message from Shorb that he wouldn’t be making any comment at this time.

From her house on a hill above the property, Rindone started seeing activity within the first year that concerned her: She said she saw dirt being moved in that dammed up a creek and flooded the private gravel road she uses to reach her cows. She saw six semi trucks move onto the property, an existing mobile home demolished, and numerous small buildings begin to appear.

Lyne said she got concerned when she looked at the plans the organization had for the property online.

Projects listed on the YWAM-FHH website include transforming donated RVs into tiny homes for “staff housing and other purposes.” In its 2017 annual report, Shorb wrote that the organization receives surplus fish from the state that’s distributed, frozen, through the food bank and other local feeding programs, and that salmon from local tribes is canned and shipped around the world.

Its website also advertises a Discipleship Training School for people ages 18 and older, costing roughly $5,600, with a residential “lecture phase” at the Case Road location.

Lyne told The Olympian she believes the Faith Harvest Helpers have “done a wonderful job regarding the food bank in Olympia and their outreach to help poor and hungry people around the world,” but that the development raises concerns.

“As we start seeing things going in there, we say, ‘That’s not being used for agriculture,’” Rindone said, referring to the area’s zoning.

According to county data, the property is zoned as “RRR 1/5,” meaning one dwelling unit is allowed per five acres. The “RRR” stands for “Rural Residential/Resource.”

The county’s code of ordinances chapter on that type of zoning says its purpose is “to encourage residential development that maintains the county’s rural character” and “is sensitive to the site’s physical characteristics,” among other qualities.

The way YWAM-FHH is using the land, the neighbors say, doesn’t align.

Rindone and Lyne say YWAM-FHH has been operating an RV park, a school, and an office on the property without the proper permits, and that the organization has been disregarding wetlands buffers meant to protect the endangered Oregon spotted frog.

“The main issue is that Thurston County has designated certain areas for farmland and agriculture, and it’s not being adhered to,” Rindone said.

So the neighbors have taken their concerns to the county.

The YWAM-FHH development came to the attention of the county in 2016 when a neighbor called to report land-use violations, according to a report compiled by Thurston County Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) staff. Then, “county staff from various departments” visited the site and informed the owners about regulations and permitting. Later that year, according to the report, the county found out the building and land-use violations were ongoing.

“Based on complaints from neighbors, site visits, and aerial photos, at any given time there are up to eight recreational vehicles with people living in them, several transport containers, and mobile homes in various states of deconstruction,” the report reads. “Based on the Faith Harvest Helpers’ website, these structures are being used to house volunteers, permanent residents, and for processing and canning fish.”

According to the staff report, the property contains a stream and wetlands, and a wetland buffer envelopes “almost the entire site.” An existing mobile home on the property was allowed to be replaced, according to the report, but other buildings weren’t permitted. YWAM-FHH requested a Reasonable Use Exception for after-the-fact permitting of three structures on the property, according to the report.

“Approvals were not granted for the development that took place,” said Brett Bures, Development Services Manager at CPED. “The RUE (Reasonable Use Exception) is an after-the-fact approach to try to gain compliance.”

A hearing examiner’s hearing was scheduled for Aug. 27 to consider YWAM-FHH’s request. It was postponed at the request of the organization, and a new date has not been determined.

Rindone said about 20 people from the area had planned to testify.

Sara Gentzler joined The Olympian in June 2019. She primarily covers Thurston County government and its courts, as well as breaking news. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Creighton University.