Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ordinance update vital to private property and natural resources

Critical areas are essential to our health and safety, and expensive, if not impossible, to replace. Updating Thurston County's Critical Areas Ordinance has sparked numerous questions. We appreciate people's interest and the opportunity The Olympian has given us to respond.

What is a Critical Areas Ordinance?

The 1990 Growth Management Act requires Washington’s fastest-growing cities and counties to write comprehensive plans to manage growth and prevent urban sprawl. Plans must protect five types of critical areas: aquifer recharge areas; fish and wildlife habitats; wetlands; frequently flooded areas, and geologically hazardous areas (such as bluffs).

Why are we updating the ordinance?

Because we must. The Growth Management Act requires Thurston County to comprehensively review its Critical Areas Ordinance every seven years to ensure it keeps pace with changes in state law and effectively protects critical areas. Since the ordinance was written in 1994, the state Legislature has added requirements including using “best available science” when developing critical area regulations and protecting fish such as salmon. These and other changes mean the critical areas ordinance must be significantly revised.

It’s also the right thing to do. Critical areas are essential to the health of humans and wildlife alike. Updating the ordinance helps ensure our regulations stay local. If we fail to protect critical areas — especially habitats like prairies and wetlands — state and federal governments will likely step in to enact stricter requirements.

Why should we care about critical areas?

Protecting critical areas is crucial to public safety. Preserving resources makes our county a healthy place to live, ensuring our water supplies are uncontaminated and our lakes and rivers are safe places to swim and fish. Critical area protections also help safeguard people from physical and financial harm caused by floods, earthquakes, mudslides and other disasters.

Why do prairies need protection?

Only three percent of our county’s native prairies still exist. Many prairie-dependent species are listed as endangered or threatened by state or federal authorities. The future of the species will become more uncertain as the few remaining habitats become fragmented.

Would property containing a critical area be off-limits to development?

No. Having a critical area within a property does not mean the land is locked from development. Our staff works closely with each permit applicant to find a location that will reduce the impact on a critical area or buffer.

Will all critical area landowners need to write an expensive report in order to get a building permit?

No. The county requires habitat management plans in only a small percentage of cases. Since the prairie ordinance was adopted in 2009, county staff reviewed 1,203 applications where maps showed prairie or gopher soils. Only five projects were required to submit habitat management plans — less than 1 percent — and two of those were county projects.

Where is the process now?

The county is drafting amendments for the Planning Commission’s review. The commission will hold a public hearing and make recommendations to the three of us county commissioners. We will hold a public hearing before approving any amendments. We expect the process to be completed by January 2012.

How can citizens stay informed?

Specific property questions can be asked in person at the Permit Assistance Center at the courthouse, 2000 Lakeridge Dr. in Olympia, from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m, weekdays.

For more information, visit www.ThurstonPlanning.org.

To view draft ordinance chapters, click on the “critical areas update” photobox. To find out which chapters are on the planning commission’s agenda, click “planning commission” on the navigation bar. Citizens can also contact associate planner Andrew Deffobis at 360-754-3355, ext. 5467 or at deffoba@co.thurston.wa.us.

Karen Valenzuela, Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe are the three members of the Thurston County Commission. Write to them online at www.co.thurston.wa.us/contact.htm.