By Marcy Stamper

The standards for which construction projects will automatically be reviewed for potential environmental impact will be the same across the county, following the Okanogan County commissioners’ unanimous approval of broader exemptions on Jan. 21.

Updating the county code for which projects would be exempt from review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) had been under consideration since last summer, after the state allowed local jurisdictions to raise the levels for building projects not considered likely to have a significant effect on the environment. The commissioners elected to apply the maximum allowable sizes throughout the county after determining that potential impacts would be covered by other regulations, said County Commissioner Ray Campbell this week.

Since SEPA was enacted in 1972, many regulations have been put into place that overshadow it, including those that protect shorelines, critical areas and wildlife habitat, said Campbell. He said the commissioners want to avoid costly and time-consuming regulations.

The proposed change had drawn considerable attention from many Methow Valley residents, who lobbied to keep the existing, stricter review requirements in the Methow Valley School District, saying they are appropriate for the rural character of the area.

The projects in question are classified as minor construction by the state, such as developments of single-family homes up to 20 units and agricultural sheds up to 40,000 square feet.

The new county ordinance means that developments of single-family homes in the Methow Valley will not have to undergo an environmental review under SEPA until they reach 20 units, a five-fold increase from the previous standards. Offices and schools in the Methow can now be three times larger before they must be reviewed, and parking lots can double. Minimum review levels for barns and landfills are also being relaxed for the rest of the county.

The Okanogan County planning commission had recommended two different environmental-review thresholds for the county—keeping the stricter one in the Methow Valley but raising the size of projects that could proceed without a SEPA review for the rest of the county—after taking testimony on the matter at two hearings.

In their comments to the planning commission, Methow Valley residents overwhelmingly supported keeping stricter limits. But Campbell said that the commissioners had heard from other Methow Valley residents who did not support the more-stringent review standards and did not want two tiers in the county. At the hearing last week, 10 testified against raising the threshold in the Methow, and four were in favor of a higher, uniform level countywide.

The Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) has been one of the most vocal groups in favor of keeping the stricter review requirements in the Methow Valley. In comments submitted to the county commissioners last week, the group said the new ordinance would not comply with state law because the county failed to show what other laws would meet the requirements for environmental analysis and protection.

“We would prefer that the thresholds not be raised anywhere in Okanogan County…. We do not advocate imposing Methow Valley standards on the rest of the county, but ask only that the county not impose those standards on the Methow Valley,” wrote MVCC.