County candidates battle on prairies

ROCHESTER - South Thurston County landowners remain polarized over the county's prairie ordinance, and candidates for the county's District 3 commissioner position addressed the issue in a public debate Wednesday.

The event, hosted by the Rochester-Grand Mound Chamber of Commerce, offered a glimpse into key points of the campaigns for incumbent Democrat Karen Valenzuela and her challenger, Republican Pat Beehler.

After introductory statements to start the debate, held at the Rochester school district office, the candidates touched on the ordinance.

Under the ordinance, private property owners with more than an acre of land on or within 600 feet of a critical area must get county approval of a report that identifies the areas how development effects will be minimized. Rochester resident Larry Weaver asked Valenzuela and Beehler why the county would make landowners pay nearly $10,000 to file all necessary reports before developing their land under the ordinance.

“I make it no secret that I’m angry at the critical-areas ordinance,” Weaver said. “Why is the county disregarding the budgets of personal property owners when it comes to adoption of new critical areas?”

Valenzuela said the ordinance is law that was adopted after careful consideration, and she stressed the need for the remaining prairies in the county to be preserved.

“There is no economy without the environment,” she said. “The legacy of Thurston County is fish, farms and forests, and if we lose those, we’ve lost what sustains us.”

Beehler took a different tack, touting 43 years of experience as a land surveyor and saying he thinks the gopher and prairie issue has been overstated – adding that there is a fine line between habitat management and government interference in private property.

“I’m not convinced there is a real issue with pocket gophers,” Beehler said. “People have a right to use their property the way they want, given it doesn’t impact the rest of the environment negatively.”

Both candidates told The Chronicle that a swift solution on flooding in the Chehalis River basin is necessary, with Valenzuela saying a solution “needs to happen in a timely fashion” while benefiting Lewis, Thurston and Grays Harbor counties. Beehler acknowledged that he is not up to date on the flood situation but is willing to hear public input on solutions that can benefit all parties.

Valenzuela pointed out that Lewis County allows for property development in certain floodplain areas, while Thurston County doesn’t – throwing a wrench into efforts to mitigate flooding in a manner that benefits both counties.

“The counties have been at odds over the flooding issue time and time again, but I’m confident we’re going to find a solution,” Valenzuela said. “It’s something we don’t have much time to act on, but we need to make sure that the solution we find benefits everyone.”