By Marcy Stamper

The Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest have filed a motion against Okanogan County asking the court to declare two county ordinances that opened hundreds of miles of roads to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) invalid because the county did not determine if they were safe or suitable for ATVs. The legal documents were served on the county on Tuesday (Jan. 14).

Before adopting the ordinances, the Okanogan County commissioners were required to evaluate conditions on individual roads and notify people of the potential environmental impact of allowing ATVs to use the roads, they argue. Because the commissioners skipped this analysis, which plaintiffs contend is required by the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), the two ordinances are null and void, according to the lawsuit.

“The scope of relevant factors the County did not consider is breathtaking,” they claim in the motion.

The lawsuit challenges two ordinances passed at the end of July 2013 by the county commissioners. The first ordinance opened 635 miles of roads across the county, some with speed limits up to 50 miles per hour (mph), to ATVs. The second ordinance, passed four days later—one day after a new state law took effect—opened all county roads with speed limits of 35 mph or lower to ATVs. That ordinance also declared that all roads opened previously would remain open to ATVs.

The plaintiffs argue that because the state law passed in June capped the speed limit for roads eligible for ATVs at 35 mph—except for roads already open to ATV use before 2013—the commissioners did not have the authority to open additional higher-speed roads to ATVs in July. Moreover, the county ordinance passed just days later attempted to grandfather in the just-opened faster roads, which the plaintiffs argue violates state law and its cut-off date of Jan. 1 for grandfathering-in road status.

Because the roads they opened increase access to public lands that are closed to ATVs, the commissioners also violated another intent of the new state law, which aims to decrease damage to fragile and environmentally sensitive areas, according to the court filing.

“Due in part to [the county’s] failure to conduct required SEPA review—or any review whatsoever—the County’s action… [has created] a confusing patchwork of open and closed road segments based entirely on speed limits, without regard to location, length, or connectivity of open road segments; ownership or habitat values of adjacent land; whether a particular road segment can safely be shared by motor vehicles and ATVs…,” they argue in the motion (italics in original).

Seeking compliance

“We are not trying to stop all ATV riding. What we want is a network for off-road vehicles and ATVs that complies with what the legislation intended—increased public safety, reduced environmental damage and increased compliance,” said Melanie Rowland, an MVCC board member and attorney who worked on the case with attorney Dave Mann, who is representing MVCC and Conservation Northwest.

In support of their filing, MVCC and Conservation Northwest submitted lists and maps of roads that the county has opened to ATV use, highlighted to show the patchwork of routes created by the commissioners’ actions, with short spurs legal for ATVs separated by long stretches where the plaintiffs say the vehicles are prohibited.

“The maps show that there are many short, disconnected segments that are of little use to ATV operators unless they travel on connecting roads that are closed to ATVs,” they say in the legal motion.

Okanogan County has not had an opportunity to review the new filing, but responded to the plaintiffs’ initial complaint in September by stating that the commissioners had exercised their constitutional right to make and enforce local laws and that the two environmental organizations could not demonstrate they had been harmed by the ordinances.

MVCC was formed in 1976 and is involved in a variety of environmental and agricultural issues in the valley. Conservation Northwest is a nonprofit organization that works to protect wildlife habitat in the region.

Okanogan County Superior Court will set a date for oral arguments, which will determine deadlines for the county’s response and the plaintiffs’ reply to it, said Rowland.