How Do Gophers Affect the Home Building Process?
Gophers seem to be the latest regulatory problem facing landowners in our county. Four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers that live in Thurston County have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This can have a major effect on how you are allowed to use your property. The Mazama pocket gopher is the gopher species that is native to Western Washington. They live underground and eat mostly plant roots. All Mazama gophers are not listed as threatened. Only four subspecies are, and they only live in Pierce and Thurston Counties. It is also important to note that gophers and moles are two different things. Most of these little mounds of dirt you see are moles not gophers. That’s good news. Mole mounds are round while gopher mounds are crescent shaped. The tunnels of moles can also sometimes be seen from the surface since they are shallower. Gophers, on the other hand, dig their tunnels much deeper and they are not visible from the surface. It is very difficult for an untrained person to accurately identify which types of mounds are which so don’t get frustrated. Their habitat is prairies so they are not usually found in heavily treed or very brushy areas. This is something to think about before you mow your property.How all of this affects you, is that you can’t develop your property, build a house or building, remodel, add a septic system, or do a number of other things to your property if there are gophers on it. Now I am talking about the county here. If you are planning on building a custom home in Olympia, Tumwater or Lacey, the process will be different. In the county that means that before you can undertake one of these activities you need and gopher habitat review. Most of the time this gopher review will be
How all of this affects you, is that you can’t develop your property, build a house or building, remodel, add a septic system, or do a number of other things to your property if there are gophers on it. Now I am talking about the county here. If you are planning on building a custom home in Olympia, Tumwater or Lacey, the process will be different. In the county that means that before you can undertake one of these activities you need and gopher habitat review. Most of the time this gopher review will be triggered automatically as part of the normal site plan review process. One important exception is if you want to have only the gopher view done without undertaking one of these other processes. That may sound like you are just asking for trouble but there are reasons to do it. If you are planning on selling your land or if you are buying a piece of land. You probably will want to know if there are gophers on it since this will have a profound effect you the value of the property. The gopher only review costs 177.00 in Thurston County.
The gopher review process involves a number of steps. Basically, they will determine if your property is likely to have gopher habitat. They have habitat areas mapped and if you are in one these area the process will require site visits, usually two or three. These have to be conducted during the time that the gophers are active. This means they must be completed by Oct. 30. They must also be 30 days apart. So if you need three visits, you better have the process going by late summer. The county has a handy diagram of this that you can link to here:
This lays out a timeline and little bit of an explanation of the process.
After going through this process, hopefully you will have gotten a determination that there are no gophers on your property. If, however, you find out that you do have gophers on your property you have two options. The first is work directly with the USFWS to develop an individual habitat conservation plan to protect the species this would allow you to, maybe, proceed with your project. I have not heard of anyone who has actually tried to do this. Keep in mind that these are the Feds and they have a lot of power over your project and very little incentive to approve it. They are tasked with protecting endangered species and that is their primary concern. If you have a very large project and a lot of money, it may make sense to try this option but I don’t think that it is for the average citizen. The other option isn’t much better but it is similar. You simply have to wait for Thurston County to develop and implement their Habitat Conservation Plan. This has to be accepted by USFWS in which case they will issue Thurston County a federal permit to issue permits in gopher areas. That is not the end of it though. The county will probably be required to have some type of mitigation which will involve costs and restrictions. So you still may not be able to build on your property or it may be expensive. In the meantime, the USFWS has a site that you can link to here that will tell you what you can do with your property if you have gophers on it.
Gophers are just the latest regulatory issue affecting home building. It is one of the most difficult to deal with now since it is new and the process is not completely setup. Custom home build is becoming a maze of regulatory issues that you need to go through before you can build. This article was written in November 2015. A lot of this will change in the future. If you are thinking of building a home and have a question about gophers contact me, and I will see if I can help.