Lawsuit filed against Thurston County over pocket gopher process

Olympia Master Builders, the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce and Hinkle Homes filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in Lewis County Superior Court over Thurston County’s interim permitting process governing land use in areas believed to be habitat for the Mazama pocket gopher, according to a news release.

In April 2014, four subspecies of the pocket gopher — known as the Olympia, Roy Prairie, Tenino and Yelm pocket gophers — were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In June, the county began using a review process for building permit applications that was recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in response to the gopher listing.

The new process may include as many as three property site visits that can be conducted only between June 1 and Oct. 30, when the gophers are active, county officials say.

As a result, the process has created months, if not years, of delay for some county residents trying to buy or sell property, rebuild an existing structure or build a new home, according to a joint news release from the Chamber and Olympia Master Builders.

The litigation “challenges Thurston County’s lack of public process,” and alleges that the county “transferred its authority to issue local permits to a federal agency without any public input, which is in conflict with local, state, and federal law,” the news release states.

“We do not feel that the county has acted in the best interest of the community,” Olympia Master Builders executive officer Troy Nichols said in the news release. “Furthermore, the 2015 interim gopher review process directly contradicts the GMA’s (Growth Management Act’s) statutory priority of supporting economic development, property rights, predictable permitting and citizen participation.”

David Schaffert, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber, said the process has created too much unpredictability for businesses and landowners in rural Thurston County. He said the legal action is about good government, public process and community vitality.

“If you’re going to change the process, you need to allow the citizens to weigh in,” he said. “...We just thought it was acting in the best interest of Thurston County to raise the issue and bring it to light and have Thurston County respond and create the opportunity to correct the action.”

Thurston County Commission chairwoman Cathy Wolfe said Tuesday night that she hadn’t heard about the lawsuit and wouldn’t be able to comment on it.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton