By Marcy Stamper

Environmental review for smaller construction projects will be uniform throughout the county if the Okanogan County commissioners adopt a proposed amendment to the county code.

The commissioners requested the ordinance applying one set of exemptions countywide—including in the Methow Valley School District, where current requirements are stricter—at a public hearing on changes to the county’s application of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) on Jan. 6.

The proposal to raise the exemptions in the Methow Valley has generated considerable controversy because the Methow has had stricter limits than the rest of the county for environmental review and zoning for almost four decades.

The county planning commissioners held two hearings last year on the proposed changes, which determine which projects must be analyzed for their environmental impacts. Planning commissioners specifically solicited input from residents of the Methow Valley, since the changes would have the biggest impact in the Methow Valley School District.

For example, residential developments in the Methow Valley School District currently undergo an environmental review if they contain at least four units. Under the new rules that review would not be required until a development reached 20 units. The rules also cover commercial structures, parking lots and excavation.

As a result of almost 90 comments on the proposal, which unanimously supported keeping the stricter levels in the Methow, the planning commission voted in November to recommend raising the minimums for review in the rest of the county, but not to change the rules in the Methow.

While the county commissioners usually follow the recommendations of the planning commission, in this case the commissioners asked the planning department to prepare an amendment making the limits uniform throughout the county, said senior planner Ben Rough.

With so many regulations added since SEPA was enacted 1971, the commissioners believe there is no reason to go above and beyond those regulations for the Methow Valley, said Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell in an interview last week.

The Methow Valley already has stricter zoning than the rest of the county, and changing the SEPA rules will not affect that, said Campbell.

“SEPA regulations have become redundant and burdensome due to numerous other environmental-based regulations…. The Board of County Commissioners determined that specific levels of categorical exemptions should be applied uniformly throughout all areas of unincorporated Okanogan County,” according to the proposed ordinance.

Some who commented on the proposal before the planning commission expressed concern that not all environmental impacts would be picked up by other analyses. In their comments, the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council said before raising the exempt levels, the county must show environmental review would be adequately addressed through other regulations.

Environmental review also takes place through the county’s subdivision code, shorelines regulations and in critical areas, such as those prone to landslides or containing wildlife habitat.

Under SEPA, applicants fill out a 12-page checklist about potential environmental impacts, including plants and animals that could be affected, the potential for air or water pollution, and the impact on cultural and archaeological resources.

The county has been reviewing its policies because Washington recently updated the SEPA rules to allow counties to raise the minimum thresholds for environmental analysis. Although the state regulations allow for different limits in different areas, it is unusual for a county’s policies to vary by geographic area, said Rough.

“We haven’t made a decision yet and have continued the public hearing. If people have valid and compelling points, we will take that into consideration,” said Campbell.

The commissioners were disappointed that only one person attended last week’s hearing, said Campbell. In his testimony, Dan Beardslee said it is unusual in Washington to have multiple levels of exemptions in a county and that having different thresholds suggests that the rest of the county is less environmentally sensitive. Beardslee was recently appointed as the county’s hearing examiner but said he was testifying as a private individual.

The public hearing was advertised in a legal notice in the Omak–Okanogan County Chronicle, but was inadvertently not included in the newspaper’s online listings, which may explain why some people were not aware of the scheduled hearing.

The hearing continues on Tuesday (Jan. 21) at 3 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan. Interested parties may submit written comment to ljohns@co.okanogan.wa.us or attend the hearing.