By Marcy Stamper

The Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) has filed a lawsuit against Okanogan County, asking the court to nullify amendments to a county ordinance that allows larger building projects to proceed without an automatic environmental review.

The lawsuit contends that the amended ordinance violates state law because the county has not shown how other regulations would meet the state’s requirements for environmental analysis, protection and mitigation. The lawsuit was filed in Okanogan County Superior Court on Friday (Feb. 7).

In a press release about the lawsuit, MVCC said the county provided “a laundry list of existing laws and regulations” but failed to show how these regulations will protect the environment without a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review.

The lawsuit challenges the Okanogan County commissioners’ decision to raise the exemption levels throughout the county for what is termed “minor new construction” under SEPA. The Legislature recently updated the law covering these smaller construction projects, allowing counties and cities to raise the exemption levels for projects considered unlikely to have a significant effect on the environment. Affected projects include developments of single-family homes, agricultural sheds and landfills.

The MVCC lawsuit provides examples of how changes in the ordinance would affect the Methow Valley. It says there could be a five-fold increase in the number of single-family homes that can be constructed without an environmental review, and a four-fold increase in the size of agricultural structures.

Before the ordinance was amended, the county exempted smaller office, school and commercial buildings in the Methow Valley—those up to 4,000 square feet and with 20 parking spaces—from review, whereas now these structures can be up to 12,000 square feet and have 40 parking spaces before they must be analyzed for impacts, according to the lawsuit.

The ordinance adopted by the commissioners states that “SEPA regulations have become redundant and burdensome due to numerous other environmental based regulations which have been implemented since the original authorization of SEPA regulations.” SEPA was enacted in 1971.

The ordinance names nine county regulations, including the Critical Areas Ordinance, Shoreline Master Program, and sections of the county code that cover zoning, floodplain management and building, as providing the required environmental review for individual projects.

Until the commissioners adopted the amended ordinance on Jan. 21, the building sizes that triggered automatic environmental review in the Methow Valley School District were considerably below the top end of the range of exemptions allowed by the state.

In the rest of Okanogan County, exemptions for barns and storage sheds were slightly below the highest exemption allowed by the state, but thresholds for single- and multi-family homes were already at the maximum.

“As a result, MVCC and its members will be injured by environmental impacts including, but not limited to, increased sedimentation, water pollution, noise, odors, dust, and traffic,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also charges that the county’s ordinance violates state law because it does not provide an opportunity for public comment on the potential impact of these building projects, which would have been part of a SEPA review.

In addition, the lawsuit contends that the county did not provide adequate public notice of the intent to raise the exemption levels. While the county provided public notice last July and the county’s planning commission took public comment on the proposal at two hearings, the draft ordinance available for review on Dec. 25—when the county advertised the county commissioners’ hearing on it—maintained the old, stricter requirements in the Methow Valley, according to the lawsuit.

At their hearing on Jan. 6, the commissioners directed staff to eliminate the stricter exemptions in the Methow Valley and to make exemptions uniform throughout the county, but the county did not publish a notice informing the public about this version of the ordinance, the lawsuit charges.

“We regret the need to take this action, because we view legal action as a last resort,” said Phil Millam, an MVCC board member.

The lawsuit asks the court to void the amended ordinance and issue an injunction that prohibits it from taking effect.

Attorneys with Okanogan County did not return calls seeking comment on the lawsuit.

MVCC is a nonprofit organization established in 1977 to preserve the wildlife, waters and farmland of the Methow valley.

This is the second active lawsuit MVCC is pursuing against the county. The organization is a co-plaintiff in a case asking the court to invalidate two county ordinances that allow all-terrain vehicles to use many roads throughout the county, charging that the county did not first determine the roads’ suitability for the vehicles.