Construction buried under piles of gopher regulations in Thurston County

Feb 23, 2017, 3:06 PM | Updated: Feb 24, 2017, 11:56 am
Mazama Pocket Gopher...
The Mazama Pocket Gopher is considered an endangered species, meaning it can halt development. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Region, Flickr)
(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Region, Flickr)

By Andrew Lanier, KIRO Radio

Thurston County has a big problem caused by one small critter: the Mazama Pocket Gopher.

Unlike in other areas of the country where the rodent is considered a nuisance, Thurston County’s frustrations have nothing to do with cratered lawns or earthen eruptions on putting greens. Instead, all land development in Thurston County has ground to a halt since the Mazama Pocket Gopher is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Related: What are they building around Western Washington?

The Federal Department of Fish and Wildlife, which oversees ESA status, has proposed a Habitat Conservation Plan for the gopher that will cost Thurston County taxpayers $150 million. Until that conservation plan is agreed upon or rejected by Thurston County Commissioners, every new construction project requires a gopher inspection. All projects are wait-listed for approval, sometimes for years, pending those gopher inspections.

It doesn’t matter if the project is a new home, a road, or even a simple shed, as one of Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards’ constituents learned.

Edwards says it ultimately took four inspections to approve and, “they made this citizen jump through so many hoops, he was held up for over a year just to build a shed on his own property.”

Mazama Pocket Gopher vs. private property

Part of the reason why the inspection process takes so long is the Mazama Pocket Gopher’s hibernation cycle. Since the varmints are dormant from October through June, none of the federally required inspections can take place during that time.

There are so many folks waiting on inspections that anyone who hasn’t applied for one yet will likely have to wait until June of 2018 to have their property assessed.

As it stands today, should a Thurston County resident’s house burn down, even if they had insurance money in-hand, they would not be able to build.

According to Commissioner Edwards, the gopher regulations have become, “so restrictive it’s killed our economic engine. We’ve had many businesses leave the county. Those that were intending on coming to the County went elsewhere. Our economic engine has basically been stifled.”

Getting on the inspection list may be the least of property owners’ concerns: should the proposed Habitat Conservation Plan be approved, the fees for developing any land in the county will skyrocket.

The Habitat Conservation Plan will function like a carbon offset tax; property owners and developers are free to develop their land so long as they pay a huge fee into a fund that would be used to purchase land for gopher habitat elsewhere.

Under the plan, any landowner or developer planning to build a single family home with a gopher on the property would be forced to pay $42,000 in habitat offset fees.

According to Zillow, the median home price in Thurston County is $260,000.

Commissioner Edwards says that’s just crazy.

“What’s going to happen is that the rich people in Thurston County will be able to withstand this over regulatory process because they have the money to do so,” he said. “The normal family that wants to enjoy the American Dream is never going to be able to afford to pay for these fees. So what we’re developing here is a class warfare.”

There is one wealthy Thurston County landowner who can certainly afford to pay the tax: the federal government.

The Fort Lewis Firing Range is home to one of the largest gopher habitats in the county, but since the military has diverted huge sums of cash for habitat elsewhere, they are free to continue blasting away.

Which, according to Edwards, doesn’t make a lot of sense if the goal is to save an endangered species.

“It kind of goes back to the money,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you kill a gopher: it’s whether you’re willing to pay. If you’re willing to pay, then it’s okay.”

Mazama Pocket Gopher vs. extinction

But just how endangered is the Mazama Pocket Gopher? That’s unclear.

According to information provided to county officials, there are 14 subspecies of the Mazama Pocket Gopher and there’s no way to differentiate between them without a DNA analysis. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has chosen to protect four of those subspecies.

“Why those four have become so important, we, from county government cannot figure out,” Edwards said. “We cannot get an answer as to how many gophers would be enough gophers. Or, how many gophers are not enough gophers so we know to protect them. There’s no answer to those questions.”

Meanwhile, Thurston County is starved from the influx of property tax revenue necessary to pay for basic services like law enforcement or long overdue safety upgrades for schools.

For example, the entrance to Yelm High School sits right off the bustling Highway 510; several students have been hit by cars trying to get on the property. To solve the safety issue for their students, the county wants to develop access to the school through an existing side road.

That isn’t going to happen, Edwards notes.

“It’s just become a nightmare,” he said. “Because of this gopher inspection process and all the restrictions that go along with that, we can’t do it. It’s become apparent that the gophers have become more important than the kids.”

So the county must decide what to do next. Negotiating down the cost of the conservation plan is one option. Waiting on President Trump’s eventual nominee for Secretary of the Interior to intercede is another.

Spokane Representative Cathy McMorris-Rogers is rumored to be in consideration for the position, which Edwards believes would give the county access to, and consideration from, an avowedly anti-regulation administration.

Meanwhile, Edwards said there are thousands of code violations on the books; even more the county doesn’t have the time to look into. So, some people are saying “to hell with it” and are building anyway. Property owners have to weigh whether to go ahead with construction in defiance of federal law and Thurston County building code. However, as the federal government must prove a property owner violated the Endangered Species Act by harming, harassing or otherwise infringing on the Mazama Pocket Gopher’s ESA status, some folks might just take the risk.

Which leaves the Thurston County Commissioners to decide whether code compliance is an enforcement priority or whether to wipe the entire slate clean.

Commissioner Edwards says that’s an option.

“An amnesty program would be a mechanism to recognize thousands of landowners that are out of code compliance, get them on the tax rolls and enhance our tax base without raising taxes so that we can provide adequate services to the public,” he said.

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Construction buried under piles of gopher regulations in Thurston County