County rezone plan finds happy medium

Thurston County planners are bracing for a flood of development applications in the coming months now that county commissioners have lifted the building moratorium in a rural portion of the county. More than 5,000 property owners are affected.

The fact that developers and environmentalists are unhappy with the new zoning rules would indicate that commissioners struck a reasonable compromise.

The new rules impose stricter limits on rural housing densities and force low-density zoning on environmentally sensitive areas. The real battles, of course, will come when owners disagree with restrictions put on their individual parcels of property.

County Planning Manager Mike Kain said he expects his 14 planners will be busy in the coming weeks, processing applications for new housing subdivisions. He estimates that property owners will file applications at double the normal rate of four or five new applications per week. The moratorium was in place for two years.

"I don't expect a rush to submit since there's no threat the moratorium will be reinstated," Kain said. "I hope applicants will take the time to gather the information and submit when they are ready." Incomplete applications will only slow down the approval process and delay construction projects.

Planners will be weighing those applications against new rules adopted while the building moratorium was in place. Under the new rules:

n Most parcels zoned for one housing unit per 5 acres will keep the same zoning. However, wetlands or critical areas must be subtracted when calculating the number of lots in a subdivision.

n Environmentally sensitive areas , such as the Black River Corridor and Nisqually Bluff, are rezoned to one home per 20 acres.

n Salmon Creek Basin and areas with saltwater intrusion are rezoned to one home per 10 acres.

So-called downzones, where lower densities are mandated, are controversial because, in essence, they take away development potential of property without compensating the owner. A landowner can make more money at one unit per 5 acres than one unit per 10 or 20 acres.

Many residents, especially elderly residents, see their landholdings as their insurance policy, hoping to cash in on rising land values in South Sound. Those plans can be dashed if their property is downzoned and they cannot divide it into multiple parcels.

While individual property owners will have to battle county regulators, builders believe the county commission put too many zoning restrictions in place. Environmentalists believe the new county plan is not strict enough to sufficiently safeguard unincorporated areas of the county.

In the end, commissioners squabbled over whether another public hearing was necessary before approving the final rural rezone plan, which was cobbled together from a number of options. Given the amount of public attention devoted to the county's land use struggles over the last two years, it's hard to imagine that one more public hearing would have changed the outcome.

The good news is the building moratorium is lifted, new zoning rules are in place and developers can submit construction applications to be weighed against those new rules.

The bad news is that this is not the end of the growth-versus-no-growth debate in this community.

Pity the poor property owners who are caught in the middle of the tug-of-war.