The new draft comprehensive plan increases the amount of land designated for agriculture. File photo by Don Nelson
BY MARCY STAMPER
Okanogan County released a new draft of its comprehensive plan last week that has more than doubled in length, primarily because it includes an updated version of special provisions for the Methow Valley.
The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) accompanying the plan states that “there is no proposal to change existing zoning in the Methow” nor to change the boundaries of the Methow Review District.
The crux of the new comp plan – the first revision in almost a year and a half – is little changed from the last draft, with the exception of the Methow section and a new approach to designating agricultural lands.
County planning staff also combed through the document to be sure there was no terminology from the state’s Growth Management Act, which covers larger counties, a goal that has been a particular focus of the previous board of county commissioners and much public comment, said county Planning Director Perry Huston at a recent county commissioners’ meeting.
The comp plan has gone back and forth between the county planning commission and county commissioners since the updating process began six years ago. This version was tackled by the planning commission and planning staff, incorporating input from the county commissioners and public.
Many Methow residents lobbied the county to include special plans for the Methow Valley and Upper Methow Valley, which have been in effect for decades in connection with the existing comp plan. The new rewrite includes a draft of the Upper Methow plan created in 2011 by Heidi Smith, who said at the time that she hoped to clear up potential confusion by removing outdated references and drawing on state laws to accommodate local planning efforts. Smith is now a District Court judge for the county but did not work on the plan in any official capacity.
The comp plan draft released last week partially reworks the Upper Methow section to cover the Methow Valley as a whole, although it does not provide precise boundaries and contains inconsistencies about the size of the area and whether it covers Mazama or the Methow Valley School District, which runs from Gold Creek to Mazama. The1976 Methow plan applied to the entire school district.
In response to comments urging that the Methow district be expanded south to include the area between Gold Creek and Pateros, the EIS states that this alternative has been discussed and that similar zoning could be extended to Pateros. “Although a significant difference in philosophy is represented by the different language the effect on the ground in terms of subsequent zoning decisions may be identical,” wrote Huston in his analysis. (The county is still working on the zoning that will apply the basic concepts set out in the comp plan.)
The Methow falls under a provision for “more completely planned areas,” which were previously called “intensively planned areas” and, before that, “sub-areas.” Whatever the label, the concept is to permit county residents to create land-use plans that reflect community goals and desires. Such provisions would not apply anywhere else in the county, but residents of other regions could propose their own special designation and guidelines.
Overlays in the existing comp plan that give special status to Molson and the Barnholt Loop near Okanogan have been eliminated in this draft, but the EIS states that the lower-density zoning for those areas will be preserved.
New approach to ag lands
The county has abandoned an innovative approach taken in previous comp plan drafts to use public lands to fulfill the category for agricultural resource lands because “the methodology did not comply with the guidelines for the designation of resource lands,” according to the EIS. The criteria no longer include whether the land is in public or private ownership but focus on soil type, climate and topography. That change has increased the amount of land designated for agriculture by 250,000 acres since the 2012 plan.
The new EIS compares the potential impacts of the updated comp plan with the existing one from 1964. It also responds to comments on the first draft of the EIS from 2011. While it notes that there are unavoidable impacts connected with development, the EIS says the impacts will not be significant or adverse. The county anticipates that the final EIS will be released in July or August.
People may comment on the new plan and EIS through June 24. The documents and a new map are available on the planning department website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning and at area libraries. For more information, call (509) 422-7118.
The planning commission is holding a hearing on the plan on Monday, June 24, at 7 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan. People may provide up to five minutes of verbal testimony at the hearing. People may submit written comments of any length to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments are due by June 24.