Plan protects rivers and lakes, guides development

By Marcy Stamper

For the first time in more than three decades, Okanogan County has a completely revamped plan to protect its rivers, lakes and shorelines and to guide development along those water bodies.

The county’s new Shoreline Master Program (SMP) went into effect on June 26 after a 12-year review process involving the county commissioners and staff, the public, environmental organizations, tribes, and the Washington Department of Ecology — hundreds of people in all.

Okanogan County’s SMP revision process has been one of the longest in the state, said Lennard Jordan, senior shoreline planner with Ecology. By state law, every county and most cities are required to have their own SMP, which is specially tailored to their unique needs and goals.

Shoreline master programs protect areas within 200 feet of a river or lake, provide for the public’s enjoyment of shores and waters, and guide development along shorelines.

The overarching goal of Washington’s Shoreline Management Act is “to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state’s shorelines.”

The county’s new plan — the previous one was adopted in 1987 and amended in 1996 — “increases protection and restoration of habitat and water quality, provides more certainty for development, and improves public access and recreational opportunities,” said Ecology in a statement about the adoption of the plan.

The new SMP designates six types of shorelines, ranging from the most pristine to most developed. Those categories go from aquatic (the water itself, plus water-specific development like docks and marinas), to natural (pristine waters with significant restrictions on development), conservancy (relatively pristine), rural (higher density — much agricultural and residential land near rivers and lakes throughout the county), urban conservation (less-developed shorelines in towns and cities) and, finally, shoreline residential (higher-density development in cities and urban-growth areas).

Separate criteria

Each environmental designation has its own criteria, policies and purposes, which guide the type of development allowed and necessary permits, said Jordan. While similar to zoning, the shoreline plan also includes areas where no development can occur, said Jordan.

The six new shoreline environments are more descriptive than the five in the county’s old plan, and are tailored to Okanogan County’s unique shorelines, according to Ecology.

“This county’s proposed classification system is based on existing land use patterns, the biological and physical character of the shoreline, and the goals and aspirations of the community, as expressed by the Board of County Commissioners,” according to Ecology.

Having only six environmental designations streamlines the county’s SMP, since previous drafts had as many as nine, including categories not envisioned in the state guidelines. Many of those designations — in particular, one called “riverine” — were switched to “conservancy” in the new plan, a more protective status, said Jordan.

Okanogan County and Ecology worked together closely to complete the plan, going back and forth about recommended changes and language. The county accepted most changes, but some sections were more contentious, said Jordan.

Okanogan County has established vegetation conservation areas — where all building and development are prohibited — beyond the ordinary high-water mark. The vegetation conservations areas vary from 25 to 150 feet wide, depending on the designation. An additional setback extends from the vegetation area, where people can have a yard, but no structures, said Jordan.

The state allows counties considerable latitude in devising a plan and language to suit their goals. Okanogan County opted to use the term “vegetation conservation area” instead of buffer, said Jordan.

Public access

Public access is a key component of the state’s shoreline planning.

Any subdivision with four or more lots is required to have some type of public access. Arriving at an acceptable balance between rights of property owners and the state’s commitment to public access was one of the more challenging aspects of developing Okanogan County’s plan, said Jordan.

“Public access is a widely varied concept,” said Jordan. While it often includes parks or boat launches, “It can be as simple as visual access. The goal is as much public access as possible,” he said.

“You can imagine the fear — unfounded fear — in Washington,” said Jordan. “People think, ‘If I develop property, you’ll make me develop a park.’ But that’s not true.”

In the final draft, Okanogan County requires developers of subdivisions with at least four lots to provide access for residents and guests, but not for the general public. Access for the public can be achieved by preserving a view of the water, said Jordan.

Many public comments focused on habitat for endangered and threatened species, said Ecology. Other common themes included the need to preserve overall ecological functions from deteriorating, according to Ecology.

The Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC), which advocated for enhanced safeguards, applauded the new SMP. MVCC noted that the new plan protects thousands of acres of ecologically important shoreline the council believed weren’t adequately protected in some working drafts of the SMP.

The SMP and its many supporting documents and maps are on Ecology’s website. Ecology is still incorporating the final changes in the main shoreline plan. It will be posted online within the next week or two, said Jordan.