The Thurston County Commissioners in collusion with the US Fish and Wildlife Service have created a novel method of extracting additional tax dollars from prospective new homeowners in Washington State. According to public documents, Thurston County staff has proposed a new gopher tax, up to $42,000 for new homeowners who might consider building a home on or near land that might be inhabited by a rodent called the Mazama Pocket Gopher. This gopher tax (called “mitigation” in planner-speak) would be in addition to any other fees, permits, taxes, or other costs that might be imposed on the construction of a new home in Thurston County, Washington. For direct links to the concept files written and presented by Thurston County planning staff go here and here.
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The $42,000 gopher tax is likely to become law later this year. Two of the three Commissioners (Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe) have been supportive of the plan and the process for many years now. In addition, the Thurston County Planning Department has been largely controlled by the US Fish & Wildlife Service for years – many of the county employees are entirely subsidized by USFWS grant money. This has been a concern of property rights advocates for many years because local county staff won’t question their orders from USFWS when their jobs depend on grant dollars from that federal agency.
Another aspect of the gopher tax that has local observers concerned is the current plan for much of this money to be transferred to an out-of-state nonprofit organization. Some of these gopher tax monies would stay in Thurston County, but it appears that after insiders get their cut, most of these funds would be sent to an out-of-state organization to manage local taxpayer-purchased land that could be set aside as bonus pocket gopher habitat.
The Pocket Gopher – Endangered Animal or Convenient Excuse?
The Thurston County Mazama pocket gopher was listed as a threatened species by the USFWS in April, 2014. The listing process was controversial, and generated a lot of local citizen backlash as well as open ridicule by rural Thurston County residents directed at the Commissioners, USFWS, and others who championed the original listing process. Most casual observers could see that something was very wrong in Thurston County.
Pocket gophers are considered pest rodents throughout most of the United States where they live. They are prolific and resilient creatures, often found in areas that have been heavily disturbed by agriculture or forestry efforts. In fact, the two largest concentrations of pocket gophers in Thurston County were found at the Olympia Airport and the surrounding industrial park and at the nearby Fort Lewis Firing Range. Interestingly, the very gophers who USFWS claims are threatened, thrive in the middle of the artillery impact range on a piece of land that has been repeatedly pulverized, destroyed, and burned for most of a century. Now, both USFWS and the Thurston County planning department argue that building a home on 5 acres will so harm the gophers that a prospective homeowner must pay $42,000 for permission to apply for a home – maybe.
Few observers accuse the USFWS of staying true to science or the facts when it comes to listing endangered species. On the east side of Washington State, USFWS attempted to list the “White Bluffs Bladder Pod” as an endangered species certain that this plant was so rare that it justified land restrictions. However, a local agricultural organization took samples of the “endangered” plant, conducted DNA tests, and determined that it was a very common weed found in many Western States. USFWS still plans to list the plant as endangered regardless of the truth or science. This wouldn’t be the first time USFWS has listed an animal on the Endangered Species list that wasn’t endangered. In some cases, the listed animals haven’t even been proven to exist.
The pocket gopher listing process has become just as silly. No USFWS employee is willing to say how many of these endangered pocket gophers actually exist. In fact, they tend to become angry if anyone dares ask. Partly, this is because past population counts have proven to be wildly inaccurate. Another reason government staff requires forced ignorance of the gopher population numbers is that it would lead to a logical question which they also refuse to answer – how many gophers do you need for them to no longer be considered threatened? None dare even think these thoughts, at least not if you want the grant gravy train to continue. Solving a real problem has never been the goal.
Interestingly enough, the DNA samples for this “endangered” gopher exist at the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, but they refuse to allow an outside organization to take samples for an independant DNA test. It is illegal for someone to trap a gopher and take independent samples – you could be arrested and get a criminal record like this guy. Willful ignorance appears to be the order of the day in Thurston County and at the USFWS. Science and the facts are entirely irrelevant. The process is the point and the punishment.
It isn’t about the gopher
As the handful of extremists who have testified in favor of these pocket gopher property restrictions have publically stated in the past, “it isn’t about the gopher.” It is about the private property inhabited by the gopher. For those using the gopher as their excuse to legislate rules and taxes, it is about power, money, and control. It will never be enough.
A casual review of these proposed gopher tax plans also reveals an effort by Thurston County planning staff (under the direction of the USFWS) to severely restrict the use of the homesite property, even after the gopher tax has been paid. The diagrams and concept homesite maps indicate restrictive size limits on the home, restriction of outbuildings, landscaping, and even how far away from the home a dog house could be located. It appears that a “buffer” around the home will be “allowed” for a yard and maybe playground equipment, but the rest of the property will become NO Touch zones of some type.
Gopher habitat restrictions have been in place throughout rural Thurston County for several years. These have included forcing homeowners to hire a gopher site inspector to inspect the property to verify if the gophers live there (only between the months of June and October – if you need to build something else at a different time of year – you must wait until the gophers are more active). Eventually, this changed to three different gopher site inspections by government gopher experts three times during the limited months gophers would be active. Despite the large amount of taxpayer resources dedicated to gopher plans, Thurston County failed to match their written policies with their actual policies, which has led to another lawsuit filed a few months ago by the Olympia Master Builders, Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, and other local business organizations.
These past property restrictions, lack of science, evolving rules, and unpredictable outcomes has created resentment in the affected communities. Thurston County local government has clearly lost credibility with rural residents. Many rural south county residents have complained that Thurston County refuses to adequately fund law enforcement while devoting massive resources towards gophers and other central planning schemes like increasing taxes on septic systems, increasing (or just inventing) wetland buffers, denying permits to make minor property improvements, and building doggie parks. Some of this resentment was translated into election outcomes in 2014, which confounded local political insiders. Newcomer Independant candidate Bud Blake became the newest Thurston County Commissioner by defeating incumbent Democrat Karen Valenzuela who had been a champion of the gopher tax plans and private property restrictions. Commissioner Blake beat the incumbent veteran politician despite being new to politics. He was outspent by the Democratic incumbent almost three to one. His overwhelming support from the rural voters helped him achieve a nine point margin of victory.
The two legacy incumbent commissioners Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe have both stated they will not seek reelection. Instead, they are pushing staff to finalize the $42,000 gopher tax and other rural property restrictions as early as this summer before they depart their offices. Two new commissioners will be confronting the gopher legacy when they take office next year. Many residents have begged the lame duck commissioners to delay imposing further harmful restrictions before they leave. Those constituent requests have fallen on deaf ears. In fact, County Manager Cliff Moore has often told local residents that it is just their tough luck because owning property in Thurston County is a gamble.
Thurston County is a test location for USFWS and their effort to control local planning
For those who do not live in Thurston County, this story may seem like a parody of government gone awry. The absurdity seems like it could never happen elsewhere. However, bad ordinances and central planning schemes, no matter how absurd, tend to fester and spread like a disease to other local governments. It is well known that USFWS is using Thurston County to test this concept of outsourcing local planning control to a federal agency like USFWS. USFWS tosses a few million dollars into the local jurisdiction, effectively rents the staff for a few years to do their bidding, then once the final nail is in the coffin for local residents, USFWS staff move on to their next victims. It is interesting to note
that most senior USFWS staff who laid the groundwork for this pocket gopher tax scheme have moved to other states to continue their harmful work on the taxpayer dime. We can laugh at Thurston County today, but nobody will be laughing when they experience the same rules where they live.
Thurston County has operated like a caricature of incompetent local government over the past several years. Many scandals have plagued the Thurston County Commissioners including an expensive jail that was built against the will of the voters and then
remained empty for almost 5 years because they failed to budget for operations. Budgets have been difficult to produce, impossible to decipher, and frequently didn’t even follow basic rules of addition, subtraction, or even Common Core math. Strange financial decisions have plagued the legacy commissioners. Additionally, the Democrats on the Commission have achieve a new land use jury verdict state record of $12.4 million when they lost the Maytown lawsuit in 2014 (mainly for reckless disregard of the law – according to the jury, the Thurston County Commissioner’s actions “shocked the conscience”). Their obsession with trivial, farcical issues like plastic bag bans, animal costume dances, and doggie parks have been a concern because those have become higher priorities than public safety. Now, they have invited USFWS to direct and manage local planning resulting in this new proposed gopher tax scam. Rural residents certainly believe they have been targeted by the outgoing Democrat Commissioners Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe.
This absurd, but very innovative gopher tax provides another example of harmful political leadership in Thurston County. The scheme can still be prevented, but the effort to stop the gopher tax scam will take maximum public exposure, serious political will, and new commissioners who actually want to put people first for a change.
If you are interested in contacting Thurston County directly, they can be reached at (360) 786-5440. It is always interesting to see how they spin their story, taxpayer funded public information officers are standing by…
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