Critics pack hearing on land-use
County's plan for critical areas draws huge, fiery
BY JENNIFER LATSON
Angry Thurston County residents lined up outside the door, and the stream
of cars waiting to turn into the parking lot was at least a mile long.
A hall with a maximum capacity of 284 was filled with 600 people who were
fired up about proposed new rules on land use in wetlands and other sensitive
areas. Other people were turned away because they couldn't fit inside.
County planning commissioners realized as soon as the meeting began that
they couldn't finish in one night. They extended Wednesday's public hearing to
Opposition fueled the comments from a raucous crowd that planners said
was the largest group the county has seen at any meeting in recent
The opponents of the proposed rule changes were property owners,
builders, farmers, property rights activists and people who wanted to preserve
the value of land they are counting on for their retirement. Many were
landowners from south Thurston County.
The few people who spoke in favor of the proposed restrictions on land
use in the county's "critical areas" were booed while they spoke.
The proposal calls for wider buffers and more stringent development
standards around streams, lakes, ponds, beaches, wetlands and areas considered
to be valuable wildlife habitat. The critical areas ordinance, drafted 10
years ago, has never been updated, and now the county is required by state law
to revise it.
Critics say planners are taking the revision too far.
"When I bought my property, there was a 50-foot wetland buffer. Now the
whole street is a wetland buffer. Thurston County has made my land useless,"
said Rainier resident Alana Love. "I am fighting to restore my God-given right
to do what I want with my property."
Planners drafted the new ordinance by examining scientific reports
showing how best to protect groundwater, surface water and species in
Advances in science during the past 10 years show that the ordinance is
not adequately protecting the sensitive areas, according to planners.
Naki Stevens, who works for the environmental group People for Puget
Sound, lives on Zangle Cove, where she sees algae blooms every summer that
have been linked to pollution running into the water.
"It's not fair of people to trample on my rights to clean property and a
clean Puget Sound," Stevens said before she was cut off by a chorus of
Several people cited the U.S. Constitution in describing how the proposed
changes would violate their property rights. Two people compared the ordinance
to the abuses of the British monarchy before the American Revolution.
Many people came to the hearing because they had gotten a letter from the
Thurston County Farm Bureau accusing Thurston County of allowing special
interest groups to dictate the way residents, especially farmers, use their
"It would change the whole face of agriculture in the county," said Raul
de Leon, president of the county farm bureau.
According to the letter sent by the farm bureau, the new ordinance will
limit agriculture by:
Requiring a permit to farm more than one acre.
Prohibiting the use of gas-powered generators.
Increasing the amount of land considered prone to flooding.
Preventing people from mowing their lawns in critical areas.
bureau's fears are a misreading of the ordinance, according to Thurston County
Senior Planner John Sonnen:
The new rules do require people who want to start farming in critical
areas to come up with a "farm plan" showing how they will protect the
environment. Existing farms and farms that are not in critical areas will not
have to create the plans.
Gas-powered generators will be prohibited only where they are unattended
for long periods of time, such as those used for backup power at cell towers.
County planners fear that a gas leak could go unnoticed. The generators are
permitted at homes, farms and businesses where people are around to notice a
The county is not changing the amount of land considered flood
Residents can continue their activities on land in critical areas,
whether it's mowing, tilling or plowing, but if the land use has a
demonstrated effect on a pond, stream or other critical area, they will be
asked to change the way they do it so that it doesn't hurt the
Still, landowners were skeptical of the thick, complicated
Dennis Henke's 25 acres in Littlerock include a creek in one corner and a
drainage ditch down the middle. The 62-year-old has made a living in farming
for the past five years, and his land is his retirement investment.
"The way they drafted the ordinance ... I might not be able to live in my
house," Henke said. "If they take away my land and we can't pasture it, we
Dorothy Wright raises dairy goats, horses, cows and sheep on a little
more than an acre in Rochester.
"We moved up here so we could have these creatures. Now we find out
they'll be changing the zoning and everything," Wright said. "Us little peons,
we can't fight this."
Several attorneys also spoke up against the proposal and said they're
ready to fight it.
"As the draft regulations exist right now, they violate the federal
Constitution, the Washington Constitution, and a number of Washington
statutory provisions," said Leslie Lewallen, an attorney for the Pacific Legal
Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on property rights.
The group recently filed a lawsuit against King County when it updated
its critical areas ordinance.
"Thurston County's regulations are even more arbitrary and unfair than
King County's," Lewallen said.
Jennifer Latson covers Thurston County and Tumwater for The Olympian.
She can be reached at 360-754-5435 or firstname.lastname@example.org