By Marcy Stamper
Does Okanogan County have to imagine the future environmental effects of any growth allowed by its comprehensive plan, or only the impact of specific projects that the plan would permit?
That distinction — and the county’s responsibility to do a thorough environmental analysis to inform the public and elected officials — was the crux of arguments presented to Okanogan County hearing examiner Dan Beardslee during the appeal of the county’s environmental review of its proposed comp plan on Thursday (Oct. 23).
Two environmental and conservation groups, the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Futurewise, appealed the decision by the county’s planning director that the comp plan would not have a significant environmental impact and therefore does not require an in-depth environmental impact statement (EIS).
The two groups say the comp plan and accompanying zoning would allow up to 10 million new housing units and more growth than the Methow and Okanogan watersheds can support. They say Planning Director Perry Huston erred when he withdrew a previous determination that the environmental impacts would be great enough to require an EIS under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
Okanogan County maintains that the SEPA review requirement doesn’t kick in until someone proposes a specific project and its effects can be analyzed, according to attorney Sandy Mackie, who is serving as a special deputy prosecutor for the county.
The comp plan is an advisory document, providing the building blocks for the county’s land-use regulations, said Mackie. Moreover, the county has proposed an interim zoning ordinance that could change once the county’s planning commission holds hearings, said Mackie.
Tim Trohimovich, an attorney for MVCC and Futurewise, said that members of the two environmental groups had submitted declarations showing that the proposed comp plan will not protect them from the impacts of new development.
But Mackie said that the harm alleged by the appellants is speculative, when state law requires that it they show they will be specifically harmed.
The appellants say that the comp plan would allow uses including single-family homes, apartment buildings, air cargo terminals, gravel pits, meat-packing plants, and heavy manufacturing and that many of these projects would not be reviewed for their environmental impacts.
Thousands of lots already exist, even though there is not enough water to permit development on these lots, said Trohimovich. Mackie said that anyone planning to build will have to show water availability.
The proposed zoning could convert many agricultural lands to residential use, impacts that were not addressed in the county’s environmental review, said Trohimovich. Because the comp plan identifies agriculture as a priority land use for the county, the subject does not have to be specifically addressed in the environmental review, said Mackie.
Trohimovich said state law requires Huston’s decision on the environmental impact of the plan to be reconsidered because of the summer’s wildfires and floods, which provided new information about the risks posed by dense development.
In addition to the environmental issues, Trohimovich told Beardslee that under a new county ordinance this type of appeal should be brought instead in Okanogan County Superior Court. Where and when a party can bring an appeal could set an important precedent for other county policies that affect the environment, such as critical habitat and farmland, said Trohimovich this week.
Beardslee requested additional briefing from the attorneys about the jurisdiction for this type of appeal. Those documents are due Nov. 14. Beardslee is expected to issue his decision on Nov. 28.