Lawsuit charged county had violated law in allowing ATVs to use roads

By Marcy Stamper

The Okanogan County commissioners have completely repealed two county ordinances adopted last year that opened hundreds of miles of roads around the county to ATVs.

A new ordinance, signed Tuesday (March 4), states that one of the ordinances “suffers from minor procedural deficiencies that need to be remedied prior to its implementation.”

The ordinance repealing the two all-terrain vehicle (ATV) ordinances is effective immediately. It was signed by commissioners Ray Campbell and Sheilah Kennedy. Commissioner Jim DeTro was absent.

The action comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest in August. The groups argued in the suit that the commissioners were required to evaluate conditions on individual roads and notify people of the potential environmental impact of allowing ATVs to use the roads.

Okanogan County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Stephen Bozarth said Tuesday that the county will “fix the procedural problems” and put any future proposal allowing ATVs to use more county roads through an environmental review. The review would come under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which includes a public hearing, said Bozarth.

“Because of the repeal, the motion to invalidate the ordinances is moot,” said MVCC board member Melanie Rowland. She said the organization would wait to see how the commissioners follow up on today’s repeal before dismissing the lawsuit.

“We’re really pleased with this result. It’s unfortunate we had to sue the county to get them to comply with the law,” she said.

The two ordinances repealed this week allowed ATV access on different sets of roads, with the first ordinance opening 635 miles of roads, some with speed limits up to 50 miles per hour (mph), to ATVs. The second ordinance, passed four days later, opened all county roads with a 35-mph speed limit to ATVs. That ordinance was approved one day after a state law took effect restricting the vehicles to roads with speeds of 35 mph or lower.

It is not likely that the commissioners will again propose allowing ATV riders to use the faster roads throughout the county, according to Bozarth. “I think 2013-9 [the first ordinance] is in conflict with state law, and that was a problem,” he said.

If the commissioners seek to open county roads with speeds limits of 35 mph or lower, the proposal would go through a SEPA review, which asks the proponent to answer a number of questions about the potential for environmental impact. It would require the county to determine if any environmental impact would be significant and would allow the public to comment.

Bozarth questioned whether that evaluation would change anything in the end. “There is no different environmental impact from ATVs on roads already open to logging trucks and every other kind of vehicle,” he said.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs also charged that some aspects of the now-repealed ordinances would have encouraged illegal ATV use. For example, they said that allowing ATV riders to use roads where the speed limit varies would create a confusing situation, violating the intent of state law to create safe conditions for ATVs and other motorists and to promote increased compliance by ATV riders.

They also charged that allowing ATVs to use these roads would have violated the Legislature’s aim to reduce environmental damage to sensitive public lands that are off limits to ATVs, because increased access might tempt people to ride there.

Bozarth dismissed both contentions. “We don’t have to anticipate that people are going to break the law,” he said.

Bozarth said that the question of whether the state law permits ATVs to use portions of state highways that run through towns is a question for the Washington Department of Transportation and the towns to address, since these routes are not under the county’s jurisdiction.

A hearing had been scheduled for March 11 in Okanogan County Superior Court to consider plaintiffs’ request for summary judgment in the case. The plaintiffs claimed that the facts of the case required the court to invalidate the ordinances. The county’s response was due by the end of February, but the county instead agreed to withdraw both ordinances, said Bozarth.

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