(Image courtesy: Google Images)
If you’re looking to build, gophers might be the last thing on your mind, but not if you plan to build in Thurston County. The new gopher-review portion of the building permit process may seem like an added burden, but fear not, here are the what’s, why’s, and what-to-expect’s to help you navigate this new process.
Gopher reviews are a part of a larger effort to help preserve the native prairie ecosystem of the South Puget Sound. In April 2014, the Mazama pocket gopher (along with 4 protected subspecies) was added to the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), which are found in Thurston and Pierce Counties. This requires Thurston County to have a federal “take” permit from USFWS before the county can permit any activity on the land that may impact gophers.
In order for the county to receive the “take” permit, they must come up with a Habitat Conservation Plan, which is expected to be complete in the fall of 2016. Until then, the county is using USFWS guidance as a part of the county’s existing Critical Areas Ordinance review. The new gopher-review portion of the building permit review process includes two or three on property site visits that must be conducted before October 30. Applications to complete this review process are due as soon as possible.
Why gophers? And what is a Habitat Conservation Plan?
Less than 10% of South Puget Sound’s grassland prairies still exist. These grasslands are home to endangered and threatened species and also provide clean water because the prairies soils absorb and filter storm water that replenishes drinking water aquifers. Since the grasslands are so few, the ones left are also now absorbing run-off and pollutants.
The Habitat Conservation Plan will address the issue of disappearing prairies that are home to gophers and other endangered species and habitat, thus helping protect some of the county’s water supply as well as still allowing the county to flourish and the land to be developed. The HCP will assess the impacts the proposed land use actions may have on the habitat and wildlife and should result in the “take” permit from USFWS. The “take” permit will ultimately allow the county to keep land use decisions local and should be complete by the fall of next year.
Looking to build?
Thurston County is asking that all building permit applications be submitted as soon as possible if you are looking to build between now and Summer 2016. When you apply, the county will conduct a Critical Areas Ordinance review that includes a screening of your project site for the presence of Mazama pocket gophers.
Gopher reviews are conducted June through October only and require 2 or 3 site visits, each visit being at least 30 days apart. After you submit a permit, the county will assign a permit number and conduct an in-office review of the property. Only properties near gopher soils/sites will require site visits. The site visits should begin about a month after you submit your permit application.
According to the county’s review process, staff will not enter homes or buildings during the visit. Two visits are required for sites on low-preference gopher soils more than 600 feet from a known gopher presence. Three visits are required for all other gopher soils and for sites within 600 feet of known gopher presence. The final visit must be in September or October. Reviews are scheduled in the order that applications are received.
What to expect during the review.
During the review staff will walk the entire property to look at the different types of soil, vegetation and other physical characteristics of the land, looking closely at the ground for mounds or other signs of the protected species. Immediate results will not be provided during visits.
If no gophers are present, the permitting process continues. Remember, gophers are not the only part of receiving a building permit. If gophers are present, you can work directly with USFWS to develop an individual habitat conservation plan to protect the species and possibly allow your project to move forward or you can wait for Thurston County’s plan to continue plans.
For more details on the review process visit: http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/Permitting/gopher-reviews/index.html