By Ann McCreary
Concerns about over-allocation of water resources, inadequate protection of groundwater, and impacts of high-density development in rural areas are among recurring themes in comments submitted to Okanogan County regarding its draft comprehensive plan.
More than 35 comments and hundreds of pages of supporting documents were received by June 16, the deadline to comment on the county’s determination that its latest comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance would not have adverse impacts on the environment and is exempt from more thorough environmental analysis.
Last month county Planning Director Perry Huston reversed a decision made in 2009 that the comprehensive plan — which guides future land use and development in the county — would have significant environmental impacts.
In issuing the latest draft of the plan and an interim zoning ordinance in May, Huston determined that the environmental impacts of the updated plan would not be significant enough to
warrant more in-depth analysis through an environmental impact statement.
In the years since 2009 the county reviewed environmental impacts of proposed changes in the comprehensive plan and compared them to the existing plan, which dates back 50 years to 1964.
“The final EIS would have essentially said there are no significant impacts,” Huston said this week.
Simply comparing the current draft to the old plan doesn’t provide adequate environmental review, according to several comments sent to the county.
“The notice of [environmental] non-significance indicated there were only minor differences between the new plan and the current plan,” wrote Robert Naney of Winthrop. “Merely indicating the new plan does not significantly change the [environmental] effects is not acceptable to meet state laws.”
The new plan includes “serious potential impacts” that have not been revealed through a State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) checklist conducted by the county, according to comments filed by the Methow Valley Citizen’s Council (MVCC).
Of particular concern, said MVCC, is over-allocation of water in the Methow Valley and elsewhere, and failure of the plan to address that issue.
“The Methow Watershed Council has predicted that a minimum of 1,092 lots to a maximum of over 24,000 lots are at risk of having no water available for future development in the Methow’s Lower Reach (Beaver Creek to Pateros). Recent changes in our local climate make effective water planning even more urgent,” MVCC said.
“The lack of policies to set the direction for our county in relation to water will be responsible for huge impacts not addressed in the [SEPA] checklist,” according to MVCC.
MVCC also cited inconsistencies and contradictions in the zoning map and the comprehensive plan that “make evaluation of the environmental impact of the proposal impossible to evaluate.”
The county’s analysis also fails to evaluate the impact of permitted uses in rural zones that would jeopardize water quality, including allowing activities such as high-density housing, glue manufacturing, asphalt plants, rendering plants and landfills to be built over sensitive aquifers, according to MVCC.
The environmental checklist for the comprehensive plan lists other regulations, which have not yet been adopted by the county, as means to protect the environment, according to an appeal of the county’s determination of environmental non-significance.
“The SEPA checklist lists as mitigating measures … the updated shoreline master program, which is years behind schedule, the adoption of critical areas for which the county has missed its update deadline, resource protection codes and protections for historic and cultural sites,” said an appeal by MVCC and Futurewise, a public interest group based in Seattle.
“The … SEPA checklist does not disclose the impacts that will occur if these mitigation measure are adopted late or never adopted,” the Futurewise/MVCC appeal said.
Huston said the county tried in the past to update the various land use planning elements at the same time, but abandoned the effort.
“Originally the idea was to roll them all through concurrently,” but the effort “fell by the wayside because of public input,” Huston said. “The shoreline master plan is getting close. Critical areas [planning] hasn’t been touched in a year,” he said.
There will be “fresh environmental reviews” when those documents are completed, Huston said.
“The comp plan references those documents as regulatory bodies that provide additional protections, restrictions. In the end they will all get adopted … if you create an anchor point you can write other documents to be consistent with it,” Huston said.
Several comments noted that the county has reduced citizen involvement and input in the comprehensive planning process over the years.
“Community advisory groups and individuals have played key roles in commenting on earlier drafts of the comp plan, and these comments need to be recognized and carefully considered by county officials,” said Susan Prichard of Winthrop.
“Increasingly, the county appears to be guided by special, pro-development interest groups and is not following official procedures or recognizing community input, including (but certainly not limited to) the county-facilitated Neighborhood Group comments from 2008. This has not gone unnoticed and unnecessarily exposes the county to expensive litigation,” Prichard said.
Huston said this week his determination of non-significance is a threshold determination. “Technically we haven’t issued a final determination,” he said.
The county commissioners will hold a hearing on the appeal by MVCC and Futurewise on the determination of non-significance, but a date has not been set, Huston said.
The county will continue to take comments on the draft comprehensive plan and interim zoning ordinance through a public hearing, which is also yet to be scheduled, Huston said. The interim zoning ordinance would be in effect until the county adopts a final zoning ordinance and map.