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The Thurston County Critical Area Ordinance (CAO) Controversy

By Bob Vadas, Jr.

There have been several new developments for the county's CAO work, which is intended to update the past CAO with newer, best-available science. There may be some revisions, including flexibility to benefit landowners, to make it practical notably, farmers' concerns that the prairie and oak-woodland (POW) section of this ordinance must avoid unconstitutional taking of property to protect state-imperiled, native species like the Mazama pocket gopher, western gray squirrel, several bird, reptile, and butterfly species, golden paintbrush and other endangered plants.

The wetlands, riparian/shoreline, and bluff sections of the CAO, as well as its Shoreline Management Act provisions, are also coming up for renewal soon, given people's concerns that new development can cause flooding and erosion of properties, pollution of our waterways and shellfish beds, and degradation of natural vistas.

A good critical area ordinance revision can protect both natural resources and people, if done right. Although the recent public hearing on the POW section of the CAO was controversial - with overall oral and written comments being pretty balanced between pro and con arguments - people were generally in agreement that farmers should be compensated for protecting such habitat and their component plant and animal species, likely via lower taxes. Indeed, this would help prevent farmers from needing to sell off their lands to developers in this economic recession. Win-win solutions are possible here, despite polarization created by the GO vs. STOP Thurston County organizations that are for vs. against the ordinance revision.

SPEECH members and I took a spring trip sponsored by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to their protected property in Maytown (called West Rocky Prairie), where POW and wetland habitats are being protected via controlled burns. The tour, led by WDFW's David Hays, also included members of local Black Hills and Tahoma Audubon Society chapters, and the South Sound Sierra Club. Wetland protection can benefit the state-imperiled Oregon spotted frog, albeit tree-cutting around wetlands to benefit them is being made tougher by the invasion of reed canary grass, which also likes unshaded conditions. The property also has many experimental plots to learn how to keep invasive weeds at bay.

The eastern area of Maytown includes Millersylvania State Park, which includes Deep Lake (which is really a shallow lake) with fishing and swimming opportunities and medium-growth, coniferous forest much like was found there historically. Unfortunately, lake-swimming often has to be curtailed during in the fall because of algal blooms, so the water isn't very pristine despite forest protection.

The southern area of Maytown is owned by Maytown Sand and Gravel (MSG), which they bought from the Port of Tacoma, who was previously unwilling to sell it below market-rate price for state protection. This property, which has railway access, was once considered for development of a Logistics Center, in cooperation with the Port of Olympia. But such a massive, industrial project wasn't environmentally friendly, so the Port of Olympia opted out of its collaboration with the Port of Tacoma on this proposal. As of this writing, the Port of Olympia hasn't taken a position on the potential, large-scale gravel mining that MSG would like to put there. Members of Friends of Rocky Prairie and other citizens have expressed concern about the mining proposal as have the county's commissioners in their recent decision that MSG's environmental assessment is inadequate, even when considering older, applicable critical area ordinance provisions.

Indeed, this mining project, if not done with proper environmental care and scientific monitoring, could have significant impacts on prairie and wetland habitats, the latter of which could cause hydrologic impacts on local, salmon-bearing tributaries (notably, Beaver Creek with young and adult coho) in the Chehalis River basin and WDFW's nearby wetlands.

This issue has gone to court in Lewis County, where MSG and the Port of Tacoma have recently beat citizen groups with less money (i.e., Friends of Rocky Prairie and the Black Hills Audubon Society), which could allow the gravel mine to proceed pretty soon. But it's possible that court action isn't over yet for this prairie and wetland issue, given Maytown's connectivity with similar, critical habitats on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where habitat and native-species restoration is well-underway. Unfortunately, urbanization and wildfire control have caused major declines in prairie and oak-woodland and wetland habitats in southwestern Washington.

The Maytown area has good habitat diversity for fish, wildlife, and plants. Connectivity of habitat corridors allows animal and plant species to migrate more easily when needed, e.g., in the face of climate change, to maintain their populations at healthy levels. Clearly, county-CAO provisions that protect habitat connectivity, including for wetlands in urban areas, should be encouraged, e.g., cluster development (rather than suburbanization) that avoids critical habitats for fish, wildlife, and plants. Moreover, despite the Washington Department of Ecology's promotion of stormwater ponds that often don't work very well, let's hope that Thurston County promotes wetland and riparian/shoreline protection that provide more-natural and effective ways to control stormwater runoff and thus flooding and pollution problems.

The next CAO public hearing will likely be in late October (delayed from the original, August proposal), to address various critical habitats that the county is working on. Fortunately, Thurston County has had good floodplain protection since the mid-1990s, in contrast to nearby Lewis County. But further work here is needed to incorporate cutting-edge, scientific findings into CAO revisions by 2012, when such work must be finished.

To keep abreast of the county's CAO work, please visit www.thurstonplanning.org and click on "web mail" to get on their informational listserv. At the state level, the environmental organization Futurewise is helping counties to develop better CAO revisions in the face of growing human populations on the East- and West-side.

Bob Vadas, Jr. is a state fish biologist and is a SPEECH board member.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22