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Land Use Ordinances

Critical Areas Ordinance

The Washington State Growth Management Act requires local governments to protect five types of critical areas:

  1. important fish and wildlife habitat areas.
  2. wetlands.
  3. critical aquifer recharge areas.
  4. frequently flooded areas.
  5. geologically hazardous areas, (such as bluffs).

Thurston County’s critical areas regulations are a response to that law – they regulate how development and redevelopment can safely occur on lands that contain critical areas. 

Most critical areas are protected by mandatory buffers -- strips of undeveloped land that surround the critical area in order to protect it from the pressure of growth. The width of a buffer varies depending on the quality or type of the critical area in question.  Certain types of activities and land-uses may also be regulated based on the type of critical area.

How Do I Know Whether I Have a Critical Area on My Property?

Approximate locations of some critical areas in Thurston County are available in the Building Development Center and may also be shown on Thurston County’s GeoData website. It is important to note that Geodata maps are intended to be used as a guide and do not provide a definitive designation.

Thurston County also offers a "Critical Areas Administrative Review" service, subject to fees, whereby a staff member will visit a property to help identify critical areas and the possible buildable area before a property owner submits a permit application.

Sometimes a staff member will find it difficult to determine whether an area meets the criteria for a “critical area” and will ask you to provide an assessment or report prepared by an environmental consultant.

What Exactly Are the Requirements for My Critical Area?

Thurston County is in the process of amending its Critical Areas Ordinance.  Once you know whether you have a critical area on your property, please call the Building Development Center or stop by to talk to a staff professional about rules for building and using the land.

Administrative Variance

A property owner may apply for a variance from any buffer or setback required by the Thurston County Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO). The Critical Areas Ordinance is now under review; please contact a staff member with the Building Development Center to discuss administrative variances as they related to the Critical Areas Ordinance.

Reasonable Use Exception

Thurston County property owners may apply for a "Reasonable Use Exception" if they believe the buffers and critical areas defined in the Critical Areas Ordinance leave them with no reasonable use of their properties.

Certain Shorelines Are Regulated Under a Different Ordinance

Marine (salt water) shorelines and many lake and river shorelines in the county are also regulated under a different ordinance: the Thurston County Shoreline Master Program, which is currently being revised.  In cases where an area is regulated under both the Critical Areas Ordinance and the Shoreline Master Program, the most protective requirements will apply.

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Contact Us

Thurston County Building Development Center, 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Olympia, WA 98502-6045.
Phone: (360) 786-5490. TTY/TDD call 711 or 1-800-833-6388  E-mail: permit@co.thurston.wa.us.


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