Sustainable Thurston Report Card

Goal: Preserve environmentally sensitive lands, farmlands, forest lands, prairies, and rural lands and develop compact urban areas.


Between 2010 and 2035, no more than 5% of new housing will locate in rural areas, and at least 95% will be within cities, towns, unincorporated growth areas, and tribal reservations.



Stormy, concerns for the future.
The share of new growth locating in rural Thurston County has decreased significantly since 2000. However, the last five years indicate development of new homes in rural areas may be on the rise. 

Other metrics have been less rosy. Over the past two decades, forest and agricultural land covers have decreased. Acres of parcels enrolled in agriculture and forestry current use tax programs have also decreased.

  1. Rural Residential Growth
  2. Farm/Forest Land Cover
  3. Farm/Forest Tax Programs

Why is this important?

Preserving rural areas will result in multiple outcomes, including reducing development pressure on rural lands, making it easier to maintain viable local food, farm, and forest economies, and protecting the environment.  Forest and timber land also provide ecological benefits and economic opportunities. Studies show that stream basins with more than 65% canopy cover tend to have intact stream heath. In addition, forestry is an important aspect of Thurston County’s history and economic base.

Key Observations

Several factors have likely led to a decrease in the share of new residential growth locating in rural areas compared to urban areas. Thurston County changed rural zoning and development regulations in the late 2000s. The new regulations lowered the density of housing allowed, which reduced the overall capacity for rural growth. Also, changes made to the cluster development ordinance, including placing size restrictions on cluster developments and removing density bonuses, led to fewer new pockets of dense housing development in rural areas. At the same time, the demand for new homes in urban areas — particularly in planned residential communities — increased. As the housing market recovers from the recession, the region has experienced a building boom of multifamily housing, almost all locating in the cities.

There is still a large inventory of small, older lots available for development in rural Thurston County, and opportunities for further subdivision to 5 acre lots.

The county is undertaking several planning processes and initiatives with the goals of protecting forest lands, farm lands, prairie lands, and environmentally sensitive lands from conversion to residential lands. These steps include examining incentives, coordinating stakeholders in a voluntary stewardship process, enhancing purchase and transfer of development rights programs, reexamining rural zoning with goals of watershed and prairie protection, and seeking additional sources of funding to conserve sensitive lands.

Tracking changes in timber and farmlands is challenging given the breadth of activities at that fall under “agriculture” — from forestry to aquaculture and field-grown produce to hydroponics. This page shows two different metrics:

  • Land Cover — Researchers use satellite and aerial imagery classify land into different surface cover types, including forests and cultivated land covers. Not all area with forest land cover are being managed for timber extraction (e.g. parks). Over the past twenty years, there has been an overall decrease in forested land covers while cultivated and pasture/hay land covers have fluctuated.
  • Current Use Tax Programs — Thurston County offers several current use tax programs that provide tax relief for properties engaged in forestry or agricultural activities. Properties must meet certain criteria to enroll — including agricultural use or income — and face penalties for disenrolling. These programs are optional, so they do not include all properties engaged in agricultural activities. In Thurston County, the number of properties enrolled in these programs has declined.

Additional data on agriculture is available from the USDA Census of Agriculture.