OLYMPIA – One of the main objectives of the current Board of County Commissioners is to address the Mazama pocket gopher review process, including the Habitat Conservation Plan. Through their assessments, the Board implemented key changes to the 2017 gopher review season resulting in a more streamlined and efficient review process, an increase in reviews, and the clearing of the backlog.
Due to the changes, Thurston County has completed a record number of reviews so far this year. It is the first time the County has completed gopher reviews for everyone who applied for a building permit, and needed a gopher review, in a single season since the multiple-visit requirement went into effect. The key changes included reducing the maximum number of site visits from three to two, asking U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to supply additional field biologists, and having additional County staff conduct in-office pre-screenings of permit applications.
Officials say they began the season on June 1 with 130 building permit applications to review. They have completed 200 reviews with two site visits each review, and another 100 reviews scheduled for completion before the season ends on October 31. This pace not only cleared the backlog from the previous season, it also addressed all new applications submitted. As of last week, County staff were still scheduling site reviews for new permit applicants.
Considering the site review season ends on October 31, the property site-review schedule is now closed to ensure all applications received to date can get through the review process prior to the end of the review season. Any new building permit applications received requiring a review will have to wait until 2018 to move forward with the process. The schedule is closed because reviewers will no longer be able to complete two reviews, 30 days apart, as required by USFWS.
This does not mean all building permit applicants have to wait until 2018. Gopher reviews only apply to building permit applicants who plan to build on gopher soils and are within the County's permit jurisdiction. In a typical year that's about 10 percent of the County's 4,000 total applications.
Why Thurston County Does Gopher Reviews
Thurston County is home to several endangered species, including the Mazama pocket gopher. The gopher was listed as threatened by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the Endangered Species Act, in 2014, after USFWS was sued by conservation groups concerned about the gophers' long-term survival as a species.
The County adopted a gopher review process to help permit applicants deal with the federal listing. Although the County is routinely criticized for having such a process, County leaders are reluctant to drop it because permit applicants would be required to navigate complex and costly federal processes alone.
Without the review process, every County permit applicant with a building project on a gopher soil would have to work directly with USFWS. This would increase the cost significantly and add an estimated 24 to 36 months to the process. The typical federal process requires applicants to pay for all biological reviews required by the agency. It also requires applicants to hire specialists to develop a project-specific habitat plan, and to find and purchase suitable mitigation land to offset habitat lost to their project.
"We are committed to continuing to streamline the 2018 interim review process as well as look for a well-balanced habitat conservation plan that brings value to the citizens without putting financial burden on the citizens of the county," said Commission Chair Bud Blake.
"I want to be very conscientious of the environmental needs but also don't want to put our citizens at a standstill for using their own property," said Commission Vice-Chair John Hutchings. "I look forward to initiating an HCP in the near future. This will provide predictability for our citizens and promote economic growth, while protecting our environment."
"The changes to this process have helped get the County's economic engine moving in the right direction while continuing to maintain critical habitat," said Commissioner Gary Edwards.
To learn more about the County's 2017 Gopher Review Process, visit www.thurstonplanning.org and select 'Gopher Review Process'. To learn more about a possible Habitat Conservation Plan, select 'Habitat Conservation Plan'. To receive County email notifications about both select 'Subscribe to Email List' located on the left side of the page.