Critics pack hearing on land-use changes
County's plan for critical areas draws huge, fiery crowd
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 tonight.
Opposition fueled the comments from a raucous crowd that planners said was the largest group the county has seen at any meeting in recent years.
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 decline.
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 boos.
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 land.
"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.
The farm 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 leak.
The county is not changing the amount of land considered flood land.
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 environment.
Still, landowners were skeptical of the thick, complicated draft proposal.
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 need compensation."
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