OLYMPIA – With the objective of streamlining the review process for the Mazama pocket gopher, in May, the Board of County Commissioners implemented substantial changes to help County citizens. As a result, Thurston County is on track to complete its gopher review process in a single review season for every building permit application currently in line.
County officials also report that, as of now, there is still room on the schedule for newly submitted project applications to get through the full gopher review process before the season ends on October 31.
The County kicked off its 2017 gopher review season on June 1 with about 130 building permit applications, compared to 111 in June of 2016, waiting for reviewers to make multiple visits to each site to look for signs of gophers. As of now, biologists have conducted 159 visits and completed the full review process for about a dozen applications.
That makes this the most productive and effective review season since 2015, when the County implemented a multiple visit property review in response to the federal Endangered Species Act listing of the Mazama pocket gopher.
Changes to the 2017 Process
The faster pace of site visits and increased availability of scheduling are due to decisions made by the Board of County Commissioners in May of this year. Commissioners reduced the number of on-property visits from three to two. They also moved the timing of final visits for most applications to August, from September or October, and expanded the list of activities on some building sites that may be exempt from the full review process.
With the process moving more quickly, Commissioners now plan to add more non-project permit applications to the gopher review schedule in September. Certain types of non-shovel-ready permit applications, like those seeking official gopher determination, were deprioritized at the start of this gopher review season. And, though some have been visited, staff are trying to get more of them scheduled and completed this season. The board is also exploring the option of allowing third party consultants to submit reports as a way to manage non-project applications that may not get county and USFWS review this year.
Officials say the County’s permit department received about 1,700 building permit applications prior to the June 1 start of its gopher review season, with only a small fraction of them requiring gopher review. That is about 12 percent more applications than it received during the same period last year. In a typical year, the County receives about 4,000 permit applications, but that number could be closer to 4,500 by the end of this year.
Most permit applications –projects like interior remodels and those outside mapped gopher soils – do not require review. Gopher reviews are only required for ground-disturbing projects on mapped gopher soils. In previous years, that was only about 10 percent of the roughly 4,000 permit applications received by the County.
Regardless of the total number of applications submitted to the County this year, reviewers say they are working to get as many of them through the full review process as possible. But officials caution that there will be a cutoff point before the end of September, when there is no longer time to complete two visits before the season ends on October 31, or when the review schedule fills to capacity.
The Mazama pocket gopher has been protected by the federal Endangered Species Act since 2014. Currently, the Mazama pocket gopher is listed as a ‘threatened’ species. As a result of the listing, it has also been part of the County’s permit application review process under its Critical Areas Ordinance since 2009.
The County conducts gopher reviews of building sites before issuing permits in an effort to comply with state and federal species-protection laws, and to cover the County and its permit holders from liability under those laws. The County only does a gopher review if someone applies for a County permit and the proposed project is in a mapped gopher area.
Gopher reviews could go away if the County adopts an HCP
The County’s gopher review process could become unnecessary if the County adopts a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to cover the types of activities it typically permits.
Implementing such a plan could speed up the permit process, keep the permitting decisions at the County level, and help permit applicants comply with state and federal species protection laws. It would also lead to an Incidental Take Permit for the County from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that oversees the Endangered Species Act. With a ‘take’ permit, the County could issue permits year-round without requiring gopher reviews. Commissioners are currently evaluating HCP options and continuing discussions with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to find solutions that have the least financial impact on Thurston County residents.
To learn more about the County’s 2017 Gopher Review Process go to www.thurstonplanning.org
and select ‘Gopher Review Process.’ To learn more about a possible Habitat Conservation Plan, go to www.thurstonprairiehcp.org
. To receive County email notifications about both, subscribe to the County’s email list by visiting either web address above and selecting ‘Subscribe to Email List’ located on the left side of the page.