By Marcy Stamper 

Decisions and recommendations on county land-use matters, such as subdivisions, rezones and variances, will be heard by a hearing examiner rather than volunteer boards for a one-year trial period.

Relying on a hearing examiner instead of the Okanogan County board of adjustment or planning commission was suggested by Okanogan County Chief Civil Deputy Steve Bozarth, who said there are typically better results – and less chance for litigation – with an impartial, professional person handling these matters. Hearing examiners do not have to be lawyers, but they need experience in land-use law, environmental law and shoreline law.

“I’m not knocking the volunteers – it is hard work for no pay,” but the process tends to be more efficient and to produce more defensible results with a hearing examiner, said Bozarth.

The county has had provisions for a hearing examiner in its county code since 1994 but has never implemented them. Under this arrangement, the county would contract with a hearing examiner for a one-year trial period “to assess the functionality and benefit of a Hearing Examiner system,” according to the request for qualifications issued last week. Compensation is expected to be covered by applicants’ fees for the requests and proposals the hearing examiner presides over.

During the trial period, the three-member board of adjustment would not meet. The board primarily hears requests for variances (when zoning imposes certain hardships) and conditional-use permits. If adopted permanently, the hearing examiner would replace the board of adjustment. In these matters, the hearing examiner would make a final decision.

The hearing examiner would also perform the “quasi-judicial” functions of the planning commission. Quasi-judicial matters include decisions on applications by developers for rezones, long plats (subdivisions of four or more units), and planned developments (larger projects that can allow greater density in exchange for open space). In these matters, the hearing examiner would make a recommendation to the board of county commissioners, who would issue the final decision.

Legislative issues, such as updating and adopting the comprehensive plan, the Shoreline Master Program, and the Critical Areas Ordinance, would not be heard by the hearing examiner but would still come before the planning commission.

The overall process would remain the same; the hearing examiner would conduct a public hearing and take testimony from the proponents and any interested parties. The appeal process also would not change.

Many cities and counties in Washington use a hearing examiner instead of volunteer boards. The use of hearing examiners is becoming the standard approach to land-use matters, said Bozarth.

In an increasingly litigious environment, land-use matters are a lot more responsibility for a volunteer board, said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston, whose department provides staff support.

But when it comes to putting legislation in place – such as the comp plan – “the planning commission is invaluable for bringing a much richer discussion about what to put in the regulations,” said Huston.

Applications for the new position are due to the county by Nov. 8. A detailed request for qualifications is available on the planning department’s website at www.okanogancounty.org/planning.