OLYMPIA – To say 2018 has been a year of change for Thurston County's Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) Department would be an understatement. In fact, until this year CPED was known as Resource Stewardship.
On January 18, 2018, the Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to appoint a new leader to head the department and change its name to CPED to more closely align with the services it provides to the County. The leader they appointed is Joshua Cummings, who at the time of his appointment was serving as the interim director for the department.
"It was an honor to be selected by the Board out of a great pool of other candidates to lead this department of amazing professionals into the future," said Cummings. "The Community Planning and Economic Development Department is at the forefront of ensuring citizens can build homes and businesses, farm the land, and protect the natural environment of the region – it is a balance in service to all citizens."
Creating a Culture of Customer Service
The first significant change came in February when the Permit Assistance Center (PAC) was renamed the Building Development Center (BDC). The change followed the appointment of a new supervisor to lead the County's permitting staff and ensure citizens receive the best customer service possible.
Her name is Sandy Norton and one of her first actions was recommending the name change to better align with the services her staff provides, and solidify a culture of customer service.
"The word permit can be intimidating, and we provide more services than just permitting," said Norton, BDC supervisor. "We provide information to citizens about already developed properties, septic systems, well-site locations, and critical areas, just to name a few. This may ultimately lead to the need for a permit, but that is not always the case."
On February 6, Cummings presented the recommendation to the Board and received unanimous support. Today customers will see signs that help them better understand the services they can expect to find and explain the center's commitment to customer service.
The BDC is open Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Prior to March 1, 2017, the BDC was only open until 12 p.m., but the Board extended those hours to provide citizens with more access to staff when going through the permitting process. On any given business day you can find Sandy and department staff helping citizens find ways to complete their projects and grow the local economy.
Habitat Conservation Plan
Thurston County is home to four species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). This listing affects County building permits in unincorporated Thurston County. If property owners want to build where protected species live, they first need a federal permit and a plan for how they will replace habitat lost to development. A Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) is a technical process that details how to offset project impacts to protected species.
Thurston County government has submitted an HCP and is applying for its own federal incidental take permit. The plan spells out how the County will offset development impacts to the habitat of protected species that result from building permits issued by the County. The HCP will lead to a federal Incidental Take Permit (ITP) for the County which will provide federal regulatory coverage for applicants who receive a County building permit. That means people issued a building permit from Thurston County won't have to go through the federal habitat planning process or search for their own mitigation. The County's habitat plan can cover their projects and provide them with mitigation options.
The County's plan will not only reduce the regulatory burden on individual permit applicants. It will also be faster than the federal process and keep permitting decisions right here in Thurston County.
"This brings us closer to our goal of helping permit applicants resolve cumbersome regulatory issues that have frustrated them since these four species were added to the federal list of Threatened or Endangered species in 2013 and 2014," said Bud Blake, Commission Chair.
In July 2018, County officials submitted a Prairie Habitat Conservation Plan to the federal government (specifically U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [USFWS]). A temporary process, referred to as the gopher review process, is in use while USFWS reviews the County's plan, but County property owners are closer than ever to having a one-stop permitting solution with Thurston County government.
This year CPED leaders Mike Kain and Kraig Chalem examined the County's building and enforcement codes, and CPED made recommendations to the Board of Commissioners on how these codes could be amended to better serve citizens and protect the environment.
On June 5, the Board approved amendments to the County's enforcement code (Title 26) that clarified language and communicated transparency of processes and the County's commitment to collaborative compliance methods.
The revisions removed unnecessary code enforcements and included a table that makes it easier for citizens to find descriptions of code infractions without having to read through the entire Title 26.
Other changes to County code came on August 7 when the Board approved amendments to the Building and Construction Code (Title 14), coordinated by CPED staff Jeremy Davis, that reduced permitting requirements and helped protect residents from flooding hazards.
"The changes adopted by the Board in August are saving citizens both time and money," said Cummings. "Permits for a number of smaller projects are no longer needed, like adding solar panels, and siding, or replacing windows and doors of the same size. Also, in an effort to increase customer service, the changes extend building permit expiration from six months to one year."
The amendments remove unnecessary permits, clarify language, and other minor clerical changes.
These changes to County codes are part of an ongoing effort to enhance economic development and increase customer service by streamlining the permitting process.
Other Team Achievements
The CPED team achieved many other items in 2018 to better serve citizens. They include:
- Moving the Washington State University Extension to the Thurston County Fairgrounds and Events Center, co-locating the agricultural programs on the same site
- Entering the County into an Inter-local agreement on the annexation process with the City of Lacey, increasing partnership and collaboration
- Completing an evaluation of the County groundwater monitoring network and proposing a three year program to eliminate, or upgrade, degraded sites and create new monitoring sites to improve coverage of the County
- Recommending a transition of the Water Resources division to the Board of Commissioners
- Submitting the draft Shoreline Master Program to the Board of Commissioners
- Hosting a successful Thurston County Fair with more than 24,000 attendees in a one week period, and continuing growth of youth participation in 4H and FFA entries
For Cummings, this year's achievements are a testament to the commitment and professionalism of the CPED team.
"Our department has made innovative changes to better serve citizens, but it only works because of the commitment to service from staff," he said. "The team members of CPED are professionals in their field, dedicated to the betterment of our community, and that is really what has made this year possible. We look forward to more opportunities for success in 2019."