By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County’s new zoning code — the first complete update in 38 years — has been challenged in court by two conservation groups who argue that the code fails to protect the county’s natural resources, in particular its water and farmland.

The lawsuit also asserts that the county did not take into account the potential impacts of wildfire in allowing new development.

The lawsuit was filed by the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) and Futurewise in Okanogan County Superior Court on Monday (Aug. 15).

The plaintiffs make similar claims to those they have raised in a lawsuit they filed over the county’s 2014 comprehensive plan. That case is still pending, since Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Chris Culp declined to rule until he saw how the issues were addressed in the zoning code. Zoning applies concepts from the comp plan to specific geographic areas and land uses.

After oral arguments in the comp plan lawsuit last December, Culp asked MVCC, Futurewise and the county to work together to try to resolve these issues — in particular, protections for water quality — in the zoning code.

“Maybe [the attorneys and county planners] can work together to come up with the best possible product in the end,” said Culp after the oral arguments. “There’s one lawsuit now. In one year, my fear is I’m going to have another lawsuit, maybe from another group. I’m trying to avoid that.”

Sandy Mackie, special counsel for Okanogan County, said at the time that the zoning code would include regulatory tools that would protect the county from runaway development.

Mackie noted that these issues are covered in other documents and regulations. For example, a property owner must demonstrate the availability of adequate, drinkable water to get a building permit, he said.

“It seems it might be prudent — and a better use of attorney fees, which I’m guessing are significant — to work in a spirit of cooperation, instead of litigation,” said Culp.

The county did not agree to Culp’s suggestion because it was not comfortable giving MVCC and Futurewise a special status as the county worked on the zoning code, said Mackie.

The new 172-page zoning code adopted by the county commissioners on July 26 created new zones throughout the county, increasing the minimum lot size in some areas and allowing denser development in others. It also creates new regulations for some land uses, such as cannabis operations and nightly rentals.

When the county’s planning director prepared an environmental analysis of any potential impacts of the new zoning code, he wrote that past development patterns on small, medium and large lots had not created problems in water quality.

But the lawsuit filed by MVCC and Futurewise alleges that the county’s environmental analysis does not fulfill the requirements of the state’s environmental laws.

“Despite the county’s promises to fix deficiencies in the comprehensive plan through the zoning code, this new code still allows for a level of development that can exceed the amount of available water…. Both the comp plan and the zoning code need major changes to meet state law, so we are forced to go back to court,” said Brian de Place, executive director of MVCC, in a statement.

Tim Trohimovich, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said he intends to petition the court to consolidate the comp plan and zoning cases.

The court will probably create a briefing schedule and set oral arguments for later this year or early next year, according to Trohimovich.