Friday, November 4, 2011

Local Land USe Policy Under Fire (Long Post)

Over the past several months, as I have driven to work or to play, I have been noticing some signs popping up around the area. The signs are eye-catching but a little difficult to read as I sped by at 50mph. Several weeks ago I received a mailer from the organization that had been placing the signs around the area. The group was going to host a series of Town Hall meeting in various communities in the area.

After I received the mailer I decided to dig a little deeper into what this organization was all about. As I read the postings on their website and news stories that had made the local newspaper I began to get a clearer picture of what these activists were trying to get across.

In recent years the county in which I live has been attempting to regulate how private landowners can use their lands. Some of these policies and regulations have been fairly mild such as increasing or implementing fees to do basic upgrades to your property such as adding a deck or a patio and charging a fee to provide input to policy at public hearings. Other policies have been much more invasive like the Oak Tree Prairie Habitat, which not only can penalize the land owner who has the oak tree, but any neighbors who might be within 600 feet of the tree(s).

In recent months, the Thurston County commissioners have been attempting to strengthen three highly restrictive land use polices into that fall under the umbrella of something called Critical Area Ordinance. As required by law, this ordinance must be reviewed every seven years. Now is the time for the review. In conjunction with this review the county commissioners are attempting to further consolidate these restrictive policies through a cumbersome (900 pages) and over-reaching policy. Over the years, there are many restrictive policies that have been enacted by Thurston County leadership; however, there are three policies that are probably most restrictive and harmful to property owners.

1. Wetland Designation. Under the current Critical Area Ordinance, wetland buffer are set at 25 and 100 feet. If the ordinance is passed as drafted, those numbers would increase to 100 and 250 feet. If the so-called wetlands area on a piece of property would leave less than 5,000 square feet for an owner to develop, then the ordinance would flex a little to work towards the 5,000. But even still, an acre has more than 43,000 sq ft (most parcels are five acres (or more)).

Imagine that you own five acres (217,800 sq ft) that you wish to build on. Under the proposed ordinance your development options would be limited to a little more than two percent of your property. The remaining land would be untouchable. If you owned dogs or cats, you could get fined if they roamed the other 4+ acres. Even your kids would be restricted. If you have already developed your 2%, you would be severely limited in how much more of the land you could develop (i.e. add a second structure such as a “mother-in-law home).

There are even discussions that would dramatically decrease the size of what could be described as a wetland. Right now, for an area to be designated as a wetland, it must meet Department of Ecology criteria and be more than 11,000 sq ft. If this revised ordinance passes, the requirement will change to 1,000 sq ft. We’re talking about an area not much larger than 30x30. That’s not much bigger than a good sized puddle.

2. Oak Tree Prairie Habitat. This slice of the Critical Area Ordinance is very far reaching and in my opinion, the most easily abused by Thurston County and land use planners. The part of the ordinance is a little vague and open ended. Some of the requirements are spelled out clearly, but there are other parts that are (intentionally?) left open for future rules and policy changes (federal and local).

One the clearly defined restriction is related to the Oregon White Oak. Although the tree itself is not the focus of the ordinance, what is the focus is the habitat that is supposedly associated with the oak tree. According to Thurston County, there are a few species that are threatened or endangered that make the oak tree and associated prairie their homes. Because of this possibility, more restrictions are placed on home and land owners.

Quick side note: I don’t know how many of you remember the big brouhaha over the Spotted Owl a few decades ago. Environmentalist and wildlife people swore up and down that the only way to protect the spotted owl was to eliminate logging in old growth and second generation trees. Evidence that the spotted owl thrived in the open regions of clear cuts and thin-cuts were completely ignored. Tens of thousands of jobs in the logging industry were forever lost. Small towns that had grown on the backs of loggers and the mills, crumbled. In the last ten years it was “discovered” that it wasn’t the cutting of trees the harmed the spotted owl, but the barn owl, who hunted the smaller spotted owl. I point this out because you really need to be careful when an environmentalist says such-and-such species is going to die off if we don’t eliminate whatever catches the environmentalists’ fancy.

The buffer is 600 feet. This includes if you have one acre of habitat on your land. Again, we are going to imagine you are a land owner. You have five acres and for sake of argument and clarity your property is square. Down on the southeast corner of your land you have an acre of oak tree prairie habitat. If this ordinance becomes the policy of the county, a 600 foot buffer around that acre of oak tree habitat must be observed. Since an acre that is a square measure a little more than 200 feet, adding that additional 600 foot buffer essential renders your land utterly useless. No dog, no cats, no farming, no horses, no building.

3. Mazama Pocket Gopher. Although not listed as a federal threatened or endangered species, the state went ahead and designated this critter as “state threatened.”  While some could rightly point to this as a “states rights” issue, I think this is not so much the case. Think about it for a moment. When was the last time you ever heard of an environmentalist being concerned about state or individual rights? Doesn’t happen unless there is an agenda to be worked.

At the Thurston County website the following is written about the gopher, which, by the way, was hunted by the federal government as a nuisance species for years. “The Mazama pocket gopher, native mammal, is dependent on the ever shrinking prairie habitat.” Based on what I have heard over the past couple of years, this little creature is in no danger of going extinct, especially since the federal government is no longer killing them indiscriminately. What I have been hearing is the gopher is either living well with human habitation or has once again become a pest.

Under the current and proposed ordinance, pocket gopher population is begin determined, not by going out and taking a count of the actual critters, but using a soils map to determine possible habitat. If it is determined that your property has this “pocket gopher soil,” significant restrictions are then placed on your property and its use. Because the gopher and prairie habitat are linked, the buffer zones for both are the same: 600 feet. This includes provisions that make it illegal for a home owner who has the potential for pocket gophers to own a dog or a cat. Remember, this is potential. You don’t have to have a confirmed pocket gopher on your property for the buffer to impact you; you only have to have the soil. If you feel that you don’t have any of these rascals on your property, you do have an option to have a wildlife study done. Of course, the county will tell you which environmental consultant you will use and how much it will cost you ($2,700.00).

The one thing I would like to point out to all who read this is that while all of this is going on; the over-reaching ordinance, the buffer zones, the restrictions on property rights and use, the owners will still be paying taxes as if they own the entire parcel. On paper they might own the property, but since the county has put such severe restrictions on the use of the property, the county and the environmentalists now controls the property. You have absolutely no say in the matter.

The organization is STOP Thurston County (Stop Taking Our Property) and they are trying to shine a light on what the Thurston County commissioners are attempting to accomplish. If you live in the Western Washington area, it would behoove you to do some research and maybe attend the meetings of your local county commissioners.
I plan to blog more about this in the future, if only to keep you updated.
One more thing I would like for you to take away from this. If we lose our property rights, we lose our freedoms. The policies being enacted by my local government are just another example of how politicians are chipping away at our rights. Do you have the same issues in your area?


  1. Funny that the 1000 acre pristine prairie habitat located at Mima doesn't have any pocket gophers, but the Olympia Airport has thousands....

  2. No one objected to the YELM Stage II Highway project that passes through Oak Habitat. Why would oak habitat be an issue now? Property near the unfunded Yelm Phase II or Stage II Highway project was purchased and sold by WADOT while this project was UNFUNDED. Why?

  3. At the risk of sounding testy, have you tried to grow a 300 year old oak tree? It ain't easy. What about a healthy respect for history? Would this bridge the gap between excessive liberal government and conservative land owners? If you've ever stood next to a 300 year old oak, I'd hope you'd have some respect for it -- yeah, stand back say 600+ feet and you may get a better view. :)

  4. Anon, I don't think anyone is advocating that we begin to chop down all the 300 year-old oak trees. This is about freedom from people who have no vested interest in the parcel of land telling landowners what they can and cannot do on a piece of property they purchased using money they earned.

    Imagine you bought a car, one you really liked and saved for over the years (in my case, the dream car would be a '63 ‘vette). Suddenly, somebody who has never owned your (or mine) dream car and really could care less about it passes an ordinance that stipulates you can only drive that car on Tuesday from 9am to 4pm. Unless you have Tuesday off, or work night shift, the commissioners have essentially told you that you cannot drive your dream car as you want. Continuing down this dream car path, the commissioners have also told you that even though you can’t drive the car but for seven hours one day a week, you still have to pay full insurance coverage.

    This is how many of the landowners in Thurston County are feeling. Restrictions have become so overbearing as to nearly render the land useless. If this new Critical Area Ordinance passes as written, there are going to be a lot of property owners whose hands will be completely tied.


    PACNW Righty