File photo by Sue Misao

File photo by Sue Misao

By Marcy Stamper 

The Okanogan County planning commissioners want people to have another month to comment on proposed changes about how large building projects have to be before they are automatically reviewed for potential environmental impacts.

The commissioners discussed the proposals – which would significantly raise the minimum threshold, meaning that some larger residential and commercial projects in the Methow Valley would be exempt from analysis – at their meeting on Monday (Aug. 26).

Under the proposed changes, a single-family housing project in the Methow would go from four to 20 units before it would have to be reviewed. Commercial and agricultural buildings could be three times as big as now, and landfills and excavation projects could be 10 times bigger before the review would be triggered. The proposed levels would be uniform throughout the county, an increase for much of the county.

Planning commissioner Timothy Woolsey, from Okanogan, said he was concerned about changing the stricter protections that have been in place in the Methow Valley School District. “We hear about Olympia imposing rules on us. Similarly, the Methow Valley could have issues with Okanogan imposing a different standard than that community sought to live under,” said Woolsey.

Other commissioners supported the goal of having uniform, less-restrictive policies countywide.

This environmental analysis under the State Environmental Policy Act is not an approval but one part of obtaining a permit, explained Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston. The process informs decision makers and the public about possible environmental impacts, he said.

Many projects would still undergo environmental review because they fall under other categories, such as within critical areas or require a conditional-use permit, said Huston. However, because the county does not have a clearing and grading ordinance, some actions, such as roads, do not require a permit or environmental review unless they are part of a larger project, even in the Methow, he said.

The planning commissioners will take up the topic again at their meeting on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. They are accepting written comments until then. Details of the proposed changes are available from Senior Planner Ben Rough at (509) 422-7160 or brough@co.okanogan.wa.us.