Plaintiffs cite potential environmental damage to miles of local roads

By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County is petitioning the state Supreme Court to hear a case about ATVs’ access to 600 miles of county roads, saying the environmental groups that filed the original lawsuit have not shown they suffered actual harm from the county’s decision to allow the vehicles to use the roads.

The request to the high court was filed on Sept. 8.

The plaintiffs’ claims that allowing wheeled all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to travel on these roads would damage the environment are merely hypothetical and therefore don’t meet the legal test for an environmental lawsuit, according to the county’s petition.

“State court cases have held that identification of specific harm (‘injury in fact’) must exist between the interests of the complaining party and the activity under review to allow an environmental lawsuit. Speculative or hypothetical harm is not sufficient,” said Sandy Mackie, special counsel for Okanogan County, in an email about the filing.

The plaintiffs, the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest, had argued that the county should have done a detailed analysis of the potential environmental impact of allowing ATVs to use the roads. They said that allowing them to use all county roads under 35 miles per hour without regard for specific conditions or sensitive areas violated state environmental laws.

A three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals in Spokane ruled in June that the law requires the county to assess potential impacts on the environment and ordered county officials to prepare a detailed environmental analysis. In August, the Appeals Court rejected a request from the county to reconsider that decision.

Jurisdiction issue

In addition to the fact that the plaintiffs cannot demonstrate they have actually been harmed by the commissioners’ decision to allow ATVs to use the roads, the county maintains that the plaintiffs filed the case in the wrong jurisdiction.

“That barrier is to prevent any group simply opposed to a legislative action from filing an environmental lawsuit simply to see if they can get the courts to reverse a decision they lost in the Legislative arena,” said Mackie.

When the Legislature passed a law expanding routes for this special class of ATVs, it identified a significant public interest in allowing increased access, said Mackie. The law set out a detailed process to ensure necessary protections were in place, and the county commissioners followed that when they adopted the ordinance, he said.

“The real issue in this case, in the absence of evidence of real environmental harm …  is whether the integrity of the legislative process is to be upheld or can be reversed based on allegations of …  hypothetical environmental harm,” said Mackie in the email.

The county raised these arguments about jurisdiction and the need to prove actual injury in both the County Superior Court and at the Court of Appeals, said Melanie Rowland, an MVCC board member.

Although Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson ruled that the county’s environmental review had been adequate and called claims of environmental damage merely speculative, Rawson decided the case on the merits, said Rowland.

Rawson would not have done that had he agreed with the county’s arguments about the need to show actual harm, said Rowland. The Court of Appeals expressly ruled against the county on both the arguments, she said.

The Supreme Court does not automatically hear appeals. If the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, the Appeals Court decision that the county needs to conduct a more thorough environmental review would stand, said Rowland.

MVCC and Conservation Northwest have 30 days to file a response.