Developer waits for great blue herons to finish breeding in west Olympia

Some residents in west Olympia are concerned about a proposed development’s effect on a colony of great blue herons.

The crane-like birds have nested for decades in a wooded area at the end of Dickinson Avenue, just north of the Olympia Food Co-op’s branch on Rogers Street.

Local architect Glenn Wells is preparing to build six townhomes on land next to the woods where the herons build their nests high in the trees. A road through the secluded wooded area will connect Dickinson Avenue – currently a dead-end street - to the development.

Wells said biologists with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have given him a construction window of Aug. 1 through Feb. 14 to avoid disrupting the birds during breeding season.

“I’m not taking any trees down,” Wells said of the project. “We don’t want to do anything that’s going to harm them.”

Olympia resident Stephen Bylsma recently learned about the proposed townhomes while taking a morning walk near the rookery, which he estimates has 15 nests. He is concerned that the additional human disturbances – cars, pedestrians, garbage trucks – will cause the herons to abandon their nests.

“These herons are the ones everyone sees on Capitol Lake,” he said Wednesday with binoculars in hand after spotting a heron perched atop a tree. “Herons are notoriously finicky about their breeding sites.”

Bylsma, who has two biology degrees to back up his extensive ornithology studies, said the site holds value not just as a heron habitat, but as a diverse piece of urban green space. At Tuesday’s Olympia City Council meeting, he asked the council to put a moratorium on the development until a solution is reached to protect the area’s plant and animal life.

“The whole area is extremely valuable beyond herons,” he told the council Tuesday.

Wells had previously proposed a similar townhome project at the site, but his application expired in 2010. In April, Wells reapplied with the city. However, no development will be permitted at the site until Wells revises his proposal based on feedback from city staff and state biologists, said Leonard Bauer, deputy director of community planning and development.

The city hosted a neighborhood meeting May 22 to discuss the proposal, but only one person attended, Bauer said at Tuesday’s council meeting. Bauer said there is interest in setting up another informational meeting for the community.

Some residents in the Northwest Olympia Neighborhood Association were already aware of the proposed development. The neighborhood’s blog includes a 2012 post about the right-of-way created through the woods for the future townhomes.

“The most important thing is for everybody to be as informed as possible,” said neighborhood resident Daniel Einstein. “That rookery is just a great asset. … There is some very real public interest.”

Found year-round in the Pacific Northwest, great blue herons can reach 4 feet in height with a 6-foot wingspan, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Herons typically hunt for food within 3 miles of their colony and feed on a variety of fish, frogs, snakes, insects and small mammals.