Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Olympia Attorney Fights for His Life, Nature

Above: Darren Nienaber, former deputy city of Olympia attorney and father of three young children, is looking at the big picture as he battles class 4 glioblastoma brain cancer. He has started an environment and land use education non-profit called People and Otters.

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

Characteristically, Darren Nienaber, 47, has always spoken slowly and quietly, choosing his words carefully.

For 18 years, the former deputy city of Olympia attorney has worked as an attorney for both city and county government, specializing in land use and environmental law.

Now, Nienaber (pronounced nee-neighbor) is on a mission to use his legal expertise to protect nature in the Pacific Northwest, especially in Western Washington and Oregon.

His goal is to educate decision makers and the public about federal, state and local environmental codes and regulations. While assisting community members with advice and potential litigation, Nienaber is also fighting for his life.

A father of three young children, Nienaber has class 4 glioblastoma, a rare, aggressive type of brain cancer with a low rate of survival.

In December 2015, Nienaber had brain surgery to remove the cancer. All was well for a while, but then it came back.

He had a second surgery in January of this year and is now undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments. In May, he left his position at the city.

“I hope this does the trick. I’m doing all I can do to fight it,” says Nienaber, who talked about his outlook on life and new endeavors with Little Hollywood last week

Chuckling at the irony, Nienaber said he had just paid off his law school debt when he found out he had cancer.

To further his environmental interests, Nienaber recently created a new non-profit called People and Otters. Asked about the name, he laughed and said, “I picked otters as a representative of nature out of total cuteness.” 

The idea is working. On his website, his creative writing oozes his upbeat personality and passion for conservation issues.

The purpose for the organization came to him after his first brain surgery, when he realized his sense of smell was more acute. 

“I could smell so-called odorless paint for months,” he said. His sense of hearing also improved. That led him to think about the animals in nature.

“It’s not surprising that some animals want to avoid state and federal logging roads. The roads are noisy and generate a lot of dust that damages streams….Then it occurred to me: can there be more places without roads and areas set aside just for nature?”

Above: The distinctive, loud drumming of several pileated woodpeckers boring into trees could be heard well before they could be seen along Sequalitchew Creek in DuPont on Tuesday.

With deep family roots in Whatcom County, Nienaber was born and raised in Bellingham. He grew up playing in nearby forests, building forts, hiking trails, and having Douglas fir cone fights with his buddies.

Well into his 20s, his days were also filled with lying on the beach and playing in tide pools, observing barnacles and crabs.

He started his college education taking classes in finance but ended up graduating in environmental analysis from Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University.

He was the editor of an award-winning environmental magazine called The Planet and appreciated his time with faculty member Michael Frome, a nationally known environmental journalist.

“He said to me, ‘You have to talk to the other side to understand what they are saying. Don’t just get mad and angry from a distance,’” Nienaber remembers. 

Wanting to help the environment from within the system, Nienaber received his law degree in 2000 from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He had legal stints in King and Mason counties before landing at the City of Olympia in 2005.

True to his temperament, Nienaber has a unique approach to adversarial situations.

“I am not afraid to take a strong stance for my client, but that doesn’t mean I have to be mad while doing it,” he said.

Above: In January, 2010, then deputy city attorney Darren Nienaber spoke before the city’s Design Review Board. The contentious issue was Triway Enterprises’ plan to build a massive housing and mixed-use office building project on the isthmus in downtown Olympia. Going against a city staff recommendation to approve the project, the Board recommended denial of the applicant’s plan.

State, County, and City Reforms Needed

Nienaber is enjoying his ability to be outspoken as a private citizen and says anyone can be a city planner or an activist if they get involved in the process. 

Optimistically, Nienaber is taking the long view on state, county, and city level environmental reforms.

On the state level, his interests include improving federal and state land management and logging practices. He wants to stop outright clear cutting and limit the harsh impacts of extensive road systems within the forests.

“There should be more all-natural nature than there is,” he says.

On the local level, he has voiced his desire for city and county officials to take themselves out of all levels of permit processes in land use decision-making.

Out of respect for his former employer, Nienaber demurred when asked about examples specific to Olympia, but referred to last months Washington State Supreme Court decision against the county, Maytown Sand and Gravel, LLC v Thurston County. 

The case involved a 20-year special use permit to mine gravel in Thurston County. The Maytown Sand and Gravel Company and the Port of Tacoma claimed the county’s board of commissioners imposed unnecessary procedural hurdles on the process, and had personal communications with others about the permit that were not disclosed during a permit review hearing.

“Regardless of political party or what may or may not have not been discussed, private conversations in quasi-judicial, administrative and appeal processes are bad. A lot of land use decisions go to the county commissioners that shouldn’t. In this case, millions were paid out by the taxpayers and the county’s insurance company, eight million to the Port of Tacoma and four million to Maytown Sand and Gravel.

“Unfortunately, there was an appearance of corruption. Land use cases should be handled by hearing examiners who have the knowledge and expertise to deal with cases on a local level. If there are specific concerns about the local environment, the hearing examiner needs to be made aware of them,” he said.

Referring to the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, he said the City of Olympia is a good model for this process.

About growth issues, Nienaber has seen first-hand how city councils need more options to attract infilling of their downtown and neighborhood centers.

“All too often, these areas are too risky to invest in because of legacy pollution,” he said.

Nienaber recently wrote a letter to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee regarding the state Department of Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program, which is responsible for the Model Toxics Control Accounts (MTCA).

“It is an underfunded program,” he wrote the governor last month.

“This is a problem that I think both conservation/ environmental groups and the development/construction side can agree. People and Otters strongly supports both a significant increase in funding, in the short term to take care of a back log, as well as funding to increase the number of (Ecology) employees that review MTCA cases.”

Referring to the Washington State Growth Management Act and local project review requirements, Nienaber says increased funding will move projects forward more quickly so small and medium sized cities can rebuild and reinvent.

If all this seems like Nienaber has a lot on his plate, he does, but he’s also taking time to enjoy the nature he loves so much. He recently took a trip to Alaska with his children, and often takes day trips to local destinations.

“I had thought I would be able to protect nature when I retired. Now, I don’t know how much time I have left.

“I must first and foremost fight the cancer and also love my loved ones. With whatever time I have after that, and fun time too, I want to fight for nature. That’s my mission. I don’t know where this will go, but I have lots of hopes and dreams of a better day for nature.”

For more information about People and Otters, go to or on Facebook, go to