County unveils new zoning idea

Keri Brenner
The Olympian

May 30, 2007

LACEY, WA — A plan to exclude wetlands and other critical areas from housing-density calculations in rural Thurston County was unveiled Tuesday to mixed reviews.

The plan, the latest of several that county officials are considering, would leave zoning intact for about 100,000 acres of rural land zoned for one home per 5 acres. However, the number of potential building lots would decline for properties that have wetlands, landslide-hazard areas, marine bluffs or other critical areas.

“It’s difficult looking to limit your land as best you can, instead of keeping it the way it was when you bought it,” said Daryl Horne of Hoquiam, who nine years ago bought 40 acres in Rochester with a plan to settle there with his family.

“I’m in jeopardy of losing the ability to have my kids live on the same land with me,” he said.

Horne was one of about 50 people at an open house about the proposed rural zoning plans Tuesday at the Worthington Center at Saint Martin’s University.

A public hearing before Thurston County commissioners about the proposals is set for July 2.

After that hearing, county commissioners expect to adopt one of the proposals by July 30, when the latest six-month moratorium on new subdivisions expires. Commissioners could vote to lift the ban, put in place Aug. 1, 2005, if the rural rezoning plan is adopted before the expiration date, county staff said.

“We wanted to put all the options on the table,” Michael Welter, the county’s development services director, told the audience at the open house. “There’s no clear winner or loser.”

Most of Thurston County’s 100,000 or more acres of rural lands are zoned for one home per 5 acres. The county is under a court mandate to add more types of densities — such as one home per 10 acres, one home per 20 acres or some other formula.

The new proposal, called an “innovative technique,” does not involve any rezoning. Instead, the county would subtract any wetlands or critical acreage on a property from the total for development calculations.

For example, if a property owner had 20 acres, of which 5 is wetlands, and the zoning is 1-to-5, he or she could build four homes under current zoning. Under the “innovative technique” proposed Tuesday, he or she would subtract the 5 acres of wetlands before calculating the density and only would be allowed to build three homes.

In addition, two variations of “innovative techniques” unveiled Tuesday would reduce the number of potential building lots more by subtracting any buffer areas associated with the wetlands, or portions of the buffer areas.

Although the new proposals do not change zoning, some residents were skeptical.

“All these innovative proposals tell us how to restrict use of our land, not how we can make better use of our land,” said Jan Tveten of Rochester.

John Kaufman, who owns 115 acres on Steamboat Island, said the innovative-techniques plan “has potential, but here we are at the 11th hour; why is it just coming up now?”

Tuesday’s open house on rural rezoning was the latest public event in the county’s ongoing attempt to bring its comprehensive plan into compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act. The compliance effort was ordered July 20, 2005, by the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, triggered by a complaint filed by land-use watchdog group Futurewise.

In addition to rural rezoning, the county was ordered to resize its urban growth areas, eliminate some high-density rural pockets and change its criteria for designating agricultural land.

The county appealed the growth board ruling Sept. 12, 2005. On April 3 of this year, the state Court of Appeals upheld part of the growth board’s ruling but did recognize a county’s ability to achieve a variety of rural densities through the use of innovative techniques. The county said the appeals court ruling was unclear and left some issues unresolved.

On May 1, Thurston County officials announced they were appealing the Court of Appeals decision to the state Supreme Court.


Building lots in rural Thurston County

•Total lots in one-home-per-5-acres zoning:

Loss under rezoning plan endorsed by majority of Thurston County Planning Commission: 3,800 lots, down 18.4 percent

Loss under plan endorsed by minority of commission: 8,400, down 40.7 percent

Loss under innovative technique No. 1: 3,500, down 16.9 percent

Loss under innovative technique No. 2: 5,200, down 25.2 percent

Loss under innovating technique No. 3: 6,900, down 33.4 percent


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