We’ve all heard the stories: The disabled resident who can’t build a wheelchair ramp for his home; the family who can’t get a permit to rebuild its home lost to fire; the couple looking forward to retirement but can’t sell their property; the farmer who can’t build a pole barn to protect equipment from the weather — the list goes on and on.
Welcome to Thurston County’s interim land use permitting process for the Mazama pocket gopher.
On Nov. 24, the Olympia Master Builders, along with the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce and Hinkle Homes, filed two separate legal actions challenging the legality of Thurston County’s 2015 interim process.
Our lawsuit really isn’t about the gopher; scientifically, the 2015 Interim Process for gopher review does not give any greater protection to the Mazama pocket gopher than Thurston County’s current Critical Areas Ordinance. It’s about fairness, following the law, and ensuring that Thurston County citizens are allowed to have their voices heard.
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The 2015 Interim Process is the county’s reaction to the 2014 listing of four subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher in Thurston and Pierce counties as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. It requires months of site visits, has shrunk the permitting window to only five months out of the year, and now leaves new projects waiting in a backlog of at least two years and growing.
Perhaps most egregiously, the county has not provided citizens a way to access specific policies or procedures their property will be subjected to if they find that it contains gopher soils. This has forced many property owners to seek expensive legal assistance to help them navigate this subjective and legally questionable permitting process.
Unfortunately, by allowing the 2015 Interim Process for gopher review to dictate land use and permitting decisions, Thurston County has transferred its authority to a federal agency — without any citizen input and in direct conflict with local, state and federal law. All of this was done without any official action by the Thurston County Commission — no motion, resolution, ordinance or public process whatsoever.
Laws like the Growth Management Act and the Critical Areas Ordinance, while restrictive on certain private property rights, do provide benefits: planned growth, prevention of sprawl, and certainty for our community. The county’s interim permitting process effectively neutralizes those benefits. At the end of the day, the county must follow the rules that were established through a legal public process, first by the Growth Management Act in 1990 and more recently by adoption of the Critical Areas Ordinance in 2012.
That’s what makes this lawsuit so imperative. The average Thurston County resident simply doesn’t have the financial or political wherewithal to bring a legal challenge in order to utilize their property. People shouldn’t have to “lawyer up” in order to protect their legal rights from federal overreach at the complicit hand of their own local government.
It is my hope that our lawsuit will remind Thurston County officials of this fact.
Troy Nichols is the executive officer for Olympia Master Builders.