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300 residents turn out to debate rural rezoning




LACEY, WA- A plan to rezone about 40 percent of the rural land in Thurston County drew strong feelings Thursday among the more than 300 people at a public hearing before the county Planning Commission.

"There's been such a variety of points of views expressed, and it's been so clear," commission Vice Chairwoman Liz Kohlenberg said of the way residents voiced their opinions. "I just want to thank you all."

About 50 people spoke during the 3 1/2 -hour hearing at Saint Martin's University. At least one-third of the speakers said they welcome the lower-density zoning because it would help preserve the rural character of the county.

"I don't want to see unplanned development springing up all over the county," said Mike Leigh, whose 23 acres would be downzoned to one house per 20 acres under the proposed plan. "We need to act now, while we still have some rural areas to preserve."

Others said they were worried about water quality, water supply and other natural resources.

"We can't let our sympathy for property owners allow us to cut up the county piecemeal," said Sally Vogel of Lacey. "The key idea to consider is sustainability - we don't have unlimited resources."

But the other two-thirds of those who spoke were vehemently opposed to the plan. They said lower-density zoning would destroy their property values and ruin retirement plans that were based on investments in the land.

They asked the Planning Commission to "grandfather in" people who bought their land thinking it was zoned at the higher density, only to find out later that the zoning would be changed.

"Thurston County lives by the golden rule - whoever has the gold makes the rules," said George Swartz, who said new homes were being built around him, despite a moratorium on new residential development in the county and proposed downzoning on his land.

Stephen Connor, whose family owns 700 acres in the Boston Harbor area, says the land is being rezoned to a lower density, even though housing developments surround it and despite a 100-plus acre conservation easement his family granted to the county.

"The cost of us being good stewards of the land is that we have to subsidize the rural character that gives the homes around us greater property values," Connor said.

The controversial plan is part of the county's effort to come into compliance with a ruling last year by the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. The county is appealing the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the county is trying to comply with the hearings board decision. The board, acting on an appeal filed by land-use watchdog group Futurewise, said the county's update of its comprehensive plan was flawed in four areas:

• Not enough variety in rural densities.

Much of the rural county is currently zoned one home per five acres. The proposed plan would add three new rural zoning districts: rural protection, or one unit per 10 acres; rural, or one unit per 20 acres; and urban reserve, or one unit per 20 acres.

• Too many pockets of high-density development.

The plan would eliminate about half of the 59 existing pockets.

• Agricultural land was not properly chosen.

The plan makes some technical changes in that area.

• The urban growth area was oversized for the amount of population projected for the next several decades.

The rural zoning proposal discussed Thursday addresses the first three items, which must be corrected by Nov. 30, according to the zoning hearings board.

The new urban growth area boundary is set to be drawn by February, after the county analyzes the changes from the rural rezoning.

Kohlenberg said the Planning Commission and staff will review comments from Thursday's hearing and make recommendations on the plan to the Thurston County Commissioners. The county commissioners will conduct a public hearing on the plan this fall.

"We're all concerned about growth, the environment and future," said Nelda Patton, who owns 241 acres near Tumwater and who said she was upset about the loss of private property rights stemming from the state's 1990 Growth Management Act. "The GMA better be sure the standards and the economies are equitable."

Proposed zoning districts

Thurston County's proposed rural plan amendments would create three new zoning districts:

Rural Protection, with a density of one dwelling unit per 10 acres. This is for areas that must be protected for public health and safety and to maintain the rural character.

Rural, with a density of one unit per 20 acres. This is for agriculture, forestry and low-density residential uses.

Urban Reserve, with a density of one unit per 20 acres. This is for rural lands adjacent to existing urban growth areas that are being kept on hold until future development occurs.

In addition to the districts, 59 high-density-zoning pockets in areas such as East Olympia and Rochester were reviewed. Most had zones such as two homes per acre; about half will be rezoned to one home per five acres, said Katie Knight, a county associate planner.

Keri Brenner covers Thurston County and Tumwater for the Olympian. She can be reached at 360-754-5435 or kbrenner@theolympian.com.


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