Affects nightly rentals, marijuana farms, lot sizes

By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County has a new zoning code for this first time in 38 years. The county commissioners adopted a new code that changes some lot sizes, requires a conditional-use permit for all new marijuana operations, and gives some nightly rentals in the Methow Valley another five years before they have to shut down.

The commissioners adopted the new zone code and map on Tuesday (July 26). At the same time, they repealed an interim code that had been in place while the county finalized the new one and repealed a moratorium on new cannabis businesses.

The county’s new zoning code is 172 pages, including definitions and a chart listing activities from acid manufacturing to churches to wineries and whether they are permitted, prohibited, or allowed only with a conditional-use permit.

Zoning builds on concepts in the comprehensive plan adopted by the commissioners in 2014, applying the principles to actual land uses.

These guidelines govern minimum lot sizes and where residential, commercial or industrial development can be. The new code establishes 19 zones throughout the county, including rural zones with different parcel sizes, commercial zones, and airport zones.

These details affect how many neighbors people can have and the impact of development on natural resources and built infrastructure such as roads. They also regulate the height and size of buildings, parking and signage, and the type of permits required for certain activities and businesses.

Anything not explicitly listed in the chart is considered to be prohibited, said Sandy Mackie, special counsel for Okanogan County, during the commissioners’ deliberations on the zoning code on Friday (July 22).

Nightly rentals

In regulating nightly rentals — any place rented out for 30 days or less — the commissioners wanted to balance the tourist economy with a need for affordable housing.

The majority of nightly rentals have permits to operate as part of a planned development in the Methow, but an estimated 20 of them have been operating since before the county imposed formal rules in 2005 and are considered “legally nonconforming,” said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston.

Those legally nonconforming rentals will have to cease operations by the start of 2021. This so-called amortization period allows the property owners to recoup any investment they made to accommodate tourists, but recognizes that the property still retains its essential value as a house, said Mackie.

The commissioners also considered allowing these rentals to continue until the property changed hands or letting them continue indefinitely, but struck a compromise so that they were not accorded a special privilege.

“The tourist industry in the Methow Valley is a huge contributor to the economy. Nightly rentals are competition,” said County Commissioner Ray Campbell during their deliberations last week. “To bite into an industry like that would have a huge impact on the economy of the Methow Valley.”

All new nightly rentals in the Methow will have to be part of a planned development, which includes requirements for clustering buildings and open space. In other parts of the county, they are either permitted outright or require a conditional-use permit.

All nightly rentals, regardless of permit status, must comply with health department rules.

The issue of nightly rentals attracted additional scrutiny during the zoning update because of the popularity of online rentals such as Airbnb, through which people list and rent their homes, sometimes without an official permit.

Cannabis changes

The new zone code transforms the county’s approach to marijuana businesses, which are now called cannabis operations. After marijuana was legalized in 2012, the commissioners opted to handle it like any other form of agriculture, but new cannabis businesses will require a conditional-use permit. Existing ones will be considered “legally pre-existing,” but may still be subject to requirements regarding dust or lighting.

Conditional-use permits require notification of neighbors and a public hearing and are reviewed by the county’s hearing examiner, providing an opportunity to tailor requirements or mitigations to each situation and location, said Mackie.

A proposal to place more regulations on the cannabis industry during the zoning update attracted a vehement response from people who said the industry had created a significant boost to the county’s economy. Others said the proliferation of farms had destroyed rural neighborhoods with their 24-hour lighting, unsightly infrastructure and traffic.

EIS included

The county’s zoning code was accompanied by an environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluated its potential impact on the environment. The county received 190 comments (and thousands of pages of attachments) on its draft environmental review, which were addressed by general topic in the final EIS.

In the response to comments in the EIS, Huston said recurring themes focused on the purpose of the zoning code and the ability of the county to protect water quality and quantity. There were also concerns about public safety from wildfires.

The county’s response to the comments states that the county is not required “to account for every possible impact based on full utilization of all zoning.” A review of historic patterns of development found that a variety of zones throughout the county allowed for diverse uses with no adverse environmental consequences, according to the EIS.

The zoning code tries to balance smaller and larger lots so that the transportation and other infrastructure serve an appropriate number of people. Past development patterns on small, medium and large lots did not create problems in water quality, according to the EIS.