Builders tangle with county over moratorium
Small developers whose building plans have been stalled by a county moratorium on subdivision feel like they're paying the price for the county's violation of state rules on land use.For Littlerock builder Bud Turner, that price is $300,000.
County commissioners adopted an emergency moratorium on subdividing land in the unincorporated county July 27, a week after the Western Washington Growth Management Board ruled that some of the county's land-use rules didn't meet state standards meant to prevent urban sprawl. The ruling was in response to a petition by the environmental group Futurewise.
On July 26, Turner was putting final touches on plans to develop 38 acres into four or five lots. He'd spent several thousand dollars for surveying wetlands studies, on top of the $300,000 he spent on the property.
Turner was one of nearly 100 people who attended a public hearing on the moratorium Monday. Many said the six-month ban on most rural development devalued their land; others spoke in support of the moratorium.
The moratorium took Turner by surprise and blocked his plans to build on the property in the coming months. A one-day grace period Aug. 2 that allowed dozens of developers with complete applications in under the wire didn't help Turner: He didn't hear about it until after the day passed.
"We could have met that deadline; we were ready," said Turner, who owns a small construction company. "Now we're paying $2,000 a month interest without going forward."
County officials said they enacted the moratorium so they could keep their options open in responding to the Growth Management Board's ruling, which calls for rezoning some county land so that it's less densely developed.
The board also ruled that if development here continued to violate the state's Growth Management Act, the board could invalidate all of the county's planning rules, barring all development -- not just subdivisions, according to Thurston County Senior Planner John Sonnen.
The county has until Jan. 17 to comply with state law, but doesn't expect to be completely done until the spring, according to Sonnen.
Commissioners appealed the growth board's ruling Monday, but said the appeal does not affect the moratorium. They will continue to work on meeting the standards outlined by the decision, such as reducing the size of urban growth areas and possibly changing some rural zoning from one building per five acres to one per 10, or even one per 20, officials said.
Developers like Turner fear that their 40-acre parcels will no longer be able to hold eight homes by the time the moratorium is lifted: They could become two-lot properties.
"If the state's position prevails and Thurston County's zoning is found lacking, these people may be rezoned," said Chris Butler, who owns Butler Surveying Inc. in Chehalis but does most of his business in Thurston County. "The developers knew going in what the risk was. The little old lady who's owned the property since 1950, hoping to retire on the proceeds, those are the ones I feel sorry for."
Proponents of the Growth Management Board's ruling say the moratorium is a good decision, and that the county shouldn't even have offered the one-day grace period that drew 67 applications that will be exempt from the moratorium if they are found to be complete.
Butler, who saw applications for nine clients ushered in during the grace period but had an equal number left out, said he was surprised by the commissioners' generosity.
"The statutory problems by allowing permits that may someday be found invalid was a risky move," said the surveyor, who added that enacting a moratorium was probably the county's only option to avoid an all-out ban on development by the state.
Many county residents at the Monday hearing argued in favor of the moratorium, saying the county needs time to overhaul its land-use rules.
Olympia hydrologist Tom Holz argued that the issues outlined in the growth board's ruling, and the Futurewise petition, were the tip of the iceberg for planning problems in the county.
"Futurewise is a very small organization," said Holz. "When they go after something as big as Thurston County, they go after the lowest of the low-hanging fruits. ... It means our comprehensive plan must be really bad, otherwise they wouldn't have targeted it and they wouldn't have succeeded."
The moratorium allows planners to take a closer look at rules that allow too much development in areas that should be rural, Holz said.
"My personal opinion is the comprehensive plan is in serious need of reworking," he said. "The entire county is zoned suburban."
HEARING ON CRITICAL AREAS SET FOR SEPT. 27
Thurston County's update of its critical areas ordinance is unrelated to a state board's ruling that part of its land-use policy violates state law, or to the moratorium on subdivision that accompanied that ruling.
But public hearings on the rules for critical areas -- areas that are environmentally sensitive or prone to natural disasters -- have coincided with the Growth Management Board's ruling and the moratorium. And critics have voiced the same concerns about the moratorium as about the critical areas changes: that officials are imposing too many restrictions on land use, reducing the amount of buildable land in the county and devaluing people's property.
Proposed changes to the critical areas rule will increase protection for sensitive areas and limit development in several ways:
Buffers around streams, now between 25 and 100 feet, would widen to 100 to 250 feet.
Any wetlands bigger than 1,000 square feet would be off-limits to development. Wetlands smaller than 11,000 square feet in the county growth areas and smaller than 22,000 square feet in the rural county are now exempt from building restrictions.
Buffers around lakes, ponds, and marine shores would double from about 50 feet to 100 feet.
Planning commissioners plan a third public hearing on the proposed critical areas changes at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at Worthington Center, on the Saint Martin's University campus, 5300 Pacific Avenue S.E. in Lacey.
Planners will continue to accept written comment on the proposed changes until Sept. 30 at 5 p.m.
More information is available on the county's Web site, www.co.thurston.wa.us, by clicking on the box marked "Public Hearing Draft of the Critical Areas Regulations."STATE RULING PROMPTED MORATORIUM
The Western Washington Growth Management Board ruled July20, in response to a petition from the public interest group Futurewise, that several of the county's land use rules violated state law. The board's findings prompted the county to enact an emergency moratorium barring new subdivision in the rural county.
The board's ruling included the following findings:
The county's urban growth area, which is slightly larger than Seattle, is too big -- oversized for the amount of population expected in the next 20 years.
The county's rural zoning, which has a minimum density of one home per five acres, encourages sprawl and allows too many homes to be built. Decrease and add variety to the rural densities, the board said.
Not enough eligible agricultural land has been set aside for farming.