Time to pass county’s much delayed critical-areas ordinance

Defying a state law for 11 years normally does not produce a positive outcome. But in the case of Thurston County’s much-outdated critical-areas ordinance, the opposite is true.

The county’s current CAO – which was required by the 1990 Growth Management Act – was adopted 18 years ago in 1994. Despite some minor tweaks in 1996, it has not been reviewed and revised since, despite a state law requiring an update every seven years.

Because Thurston is one of the last – if not the last – county in the state to revise its original CAO, it has benefited from the work of 38 other county planners. The result is a thorough ordinance that compares well with those of our relevant neighboring counties, and is consistent with Thurston’s other regulatory documents, such at the comprehensive plan and the Shoreline Master Program.

The County Commissioners should now bring that long and often troubled period of lawlessness to an end and approve the critical-areas ordinance this summer, perhaps as soon as July 24.

The ordinance requires a few final revisions based on legitimate concerns raised during the extensive outreach events, which arguably have gone on for more than a decade. Chief among those is a clearer definition of agriculture, so that bona fide South Sound farmers are supported in producing locally grown food and fiber.

Current and future County Commissioners also must commit to revising the CAO on schedule, every seven years as required, to avoid the nightmarish process of the past 17 years they are about to conclude.

To be fair, the county has made several attempts to update the critical-areas ordinance since the mid-1990s, and was hampered by planning department staffing issues, lawsuits and disagreements within its own planning department.

Not the least of those problems came from the state, which created a moving target by enacting more than a dozen new laws relating to critical-areas ordinances.

The most important of those came in 1995, when the Legislature amended the Growth Management Act with a requirement that counties and cities apply “the best available science” when writing their critical-areas ordinances. That added another dimension to CAO development, involving multiple studies, peer reviews and analysis of how the science applied to Thurston County, which all conspired to slow things down.

Being one of the last counties to complete its plan, Thurston planners had the benefit of reviewing every other CAO in Western Washington. Seeing what other counties adopted in terms of wetlands or aquifer recharge areas, for example, allowed them to ask if those same specifications would be appropriate for Thurston County.

Going last also produced an ordinance that marries up with Lewis, Mason and Grays Harbor counties. Setting the wetland size to 1,000 square feet, for example, matches up exactly with the critical-areas ordinances in those three adjacent counties, as well as with the cities of Olympia, Tumwater and Tenino. The same is true with standard buffer ranges.

But the revised critical-areas ordinance also provides great flexibility to decide on wetland buffers on a case-by-case basis. This should benefit property owners because, while all wetlands are important, some are of a higher quality than others.

One of the most common complaints to the county germinates from neighbor-to-neighbor disputes over flooding. Someone fills in a wetland and the water – which has to go somewhere because wetlands ultimately form a mosaic of interconnected ecosystems – ends up on a neighbor’s property.

The County Commissioners have done everyone a service by directing staff to fact-check every concern about the impact CAO revisions. They have investigated every individual case to ferret out legitimate issues.

Nothing in the revised critical-areas ordinance should create fear for any property owner, despite the shrill but hollow cries of those who are using the critical-areas ordinance for political gain.

Thurston’s CAO compares well with the ordinances adopted by nearly every other county in the state. It’s time to approve it and move on.