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Rural Thurston County under pressure from an expanding warehouse economy

Is there a need to designate more rural lands for warehouses? That’s what would happen if Thurston County were to approve the latest request to rezone rural residential land to rural industrial. According to the 2021 Buildable Lands Report, Thurston County already has plenty of industrially zoned land, more than double the amount that we will need in the next 20 years —within the Urban Growth Boundaries of our cities.

Treasurer of the Lehigh County Farmland Preservation Board, Ron Beitler, warns against overbuilding warehouses on farmland as the impacts are permanent and disabling to the economy and the environment.

In November 2019 Up Castle Company filed an application for a Land Use and Rezone Amendment that would apply to their property on the border of Thurston and Lewis Counties.

If successful, the Up Castle request would convert 33 acres of farmland from Rural Residential Resource (RRR) to Rural Resources Industrial (RRI) zoning, including a code change that would permit warehousing and manufacturing.

Does this sound familiar? It should. An article in the September WIP described another company’s request for a Comprehensive Plan Amendment and Rezone for Beaver Creek Farm from RRR to RRI —also to permit warehousing.

In 2020, warehouse developer Northpoint asked County Commissioners to change the zoning of 745 acres of rural residential land near Maytown to Rural Industrial, but were turned down.

The Up Castle request is much more far-reaching

It includes code changes that would allow other rural properties in Thurston County to be “up-zoned” to RRI. Proposed changes would allow RRR land adjacent to industrial land to be rezoned RRI and where there was access to rail and proximity to arterials, it would allow what county staff call “intensive industrial use” — in other words, warehouses.

For example, under the proposed new code an estimated 300 acres around the I-5/Maytown Road intersection could be rezoned intensive industrial RRI because they are adjacent to industrial land.

Parcel-by-parcel “de-designation” is discouraged by the Growth Management Act

The proposed code changes would violate the spirit and perhaps the substance of the law.

Responding to public comments in opposition to the code revisions this September, County. Planning Commissioners raised concerns about a piecemeal approach to warehouses in the rural part of the county. They asked staff to investigate and report about where and how many acres could be affected by the requested code changes.

Planning Commissioners asked Maya Teeple, Community Planning and Economic Development staff member, whether they could request the County Commissioners (BoCC) to create a plan to designate more industrial land in rural areas. Teeple responded that the Planning Commission could request that a study of rural warehouse demand be placed on the 2022-23 planning docket. Such a request would be appropriate in response to the Planning Commission’s public hearing for Up Castle on October 6.

When compared to the piecemeal development that would result from approval of the proposed Up Castle code changes, a study followed by new policy for designating intensive industries on rural land could be an improvement.

The Growth Management Act prioritizes preserving the rural character of rural areas and conservation of farmland.

Right now RRI lands are permitted in rural Thurston County in a limited manner. The Comprehensive Plan on page 2-11 states “Industrial uses will generally be those that are related to and dependent on natural resources such as agriculture, lumber or minerals.” Generic warehouses are not currently part of the community’s vision for rural lands, but a new policy could broaden the existing definition.

The pressure to convert rural land to intensive industrial zoning to allow more generic warehouses and trucking centers comes from developers and investors competing to serve an anticipated growth in demand as shoppers continue to order online. Fortunately, the Thurston County Agriculture Survey Results (April 2021) show most farmers do not plan to sell their land, and most want compatible uses of land nearby, not intensive industrialized sites with high traffic volumes.

Any rural land use policy should consider the recommendations of CPA–16, the county’s community review of agricultural policies and programs. This group is reviewing maps of agricultural soils and doing other research to identify additional ways to protect the agricultural lands prioritized for conservation. Recommendations related to adding more farmland to the current Open Space Agricultural tax program are being formulated now. Changes to the County’s Comp Plan will be considered in 2022.

Charlotte Persons is a member of League of Women Voters Thurston County, a docent at Bigelow House Museum, and is on the board of Black Hills Audubon Society. She is following development issues in Thurston County for WIP.

Find more information or submit comments at Thurston County Community Planning.

To testify by Zoom at the Oct. 6 public hearing, watch for that agenda on the Planning Commission’s meeting materials webpage.

Follow the work at Agriculture Policies & Programs Review Project.


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