By Marcy Stamper
At just 36 pages, the comprehensive plan adopted by the Okanogan County commissioners last week is a significantly streamlined version of the draft that county staff and elected officials started with almost eight years ago when they first began updating the county’s old plan from 1964.
The preliminary draft of Okanogan County’s comprehensive plan they tackled in June 2008 was 158 pages long, with tables, statistics and detailed sections on housing and environmentally sensitive areas. The county’s new comp plan addresses many of the same topics but in a more general way, aiming to provide the building blocks for more specific planning.
ublic health stuff. It was a conscious decision to remove all this stuff and instead to make this a policy document,” said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston during a hearing on the comp plan last year.
Simplifying the plan had also been a frequent request from the public in comments over the eight years of the updating process.
The comp plan is launched with a simple statement: “This Okanogan County Comprehensive Plan reflects the vision for the future development of Okanogan County.” The plan then provides basic planning objectives to attain that vision, allowing for considerable flexibility about how to get there.
For example, the plan adopted by the commissioners provides less specificity about how the county determines land designations. It simply stresses the importance of agriculture to the county’s economy and describes priority uses within the county’s low-density areas — such as raising food, fiber and livestock and offering resource-based manufacturing and tourism.
By contrast, the earliest draft of the plan listed 10 characteristics of agricultural resource lands, including land-use settlement patterns, compatibility with agriculture, proximity of markets and parcel size, in addition to examples of how the land would be used.
The revised comp plan simplifies the county’s land-use designations to five — city, rural/high-density (generally areas with lots of one acre or less), rural resource/low-density (most privately owned land in the county, where minimum lot sizes are between five and 20 acres), rural resource/recreation (most state and federal lands), and tribal lands. Previous drafts had included as many as 22 categories of land use.
Over the years, commissioners strived to create a document “that will serve the demands of the county but eliminate wordiness,” as former county commissioner Bud Hover put it. “We were trying to get it distilled down to its essence without diluting it.”
The plan emphasizes the county’s protection of private property rights and water rights. “Landowners’ rights must be protected from the conversion of their land to public use without due process and just compensation,” the plan states. Property owners must also “be protected from regulation that deprives the landowner of the reasonable use.” The plan also contains provisions designed to keep water rights within the county.
Special plans for the Methow Valley
When they adopted the comp plan last week, the commissioners also approved two separate plans covering the Methow Valley and the Upper Methow Valley. These sections are updates of existing plans from 1976 and 2000, respectively. Because they still contain some outdated information, the plan envisions further refinement of these documents.
A section added to the comp plan within the past two years includes provisions for these “more completely planned areas,” which currently include only the Methow Valley and the Upper Methow Valley. These areas can establish planning goals and guidelines that are different from those elsewhere in the county. The plan provides a process for other regions to organize to create their own special protections or goals.
The comp plan identifies a dozen unincorporated towns and neighborhood centers to guide development in places such as Carlton, Mazama and Chesaw, as well as guidelines governing growth in cities.
Some of the earlier drafts contained references to compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act, which have also been eliminated, since Okanogan County does not plan under this act.
Other sections of the plan that have been considerably shortened include those on shorelines and critical areas. For example, the earlier drafts define fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas and wetlands and discuss their ecological function.
As the county worked through the multiple drafts — there have been a dozen — Huston said these topics would be covered in separate documents specifically devoted to shorelines and critical areas.
As a result, these two topics are addressed on a single page in the adopted plan, noting that the Shoreline Master Program must be consistent with the policies in the comp plan and that critical areas will be designated using overlays on other county maps.
The county has been working on both the Shoreline Master Program and the Critical Areas Ordinance. Huston predicted that the Shoreline document would be presented to the county’s planning commission in January and then be submitted to the state Department of Ecology for review.
The Critical Areas Ordinance will most likely be addressed after the commissioners review the zoning code in the spring, said Huston.
To be able to move forward with the comp plan, the commissioners adopted an interim zoning code last week, which is intended to be in effect for six months, said Huston. The planning commissioners will review the county’s zoning in the spring before submitting a revised draft to the county commissioners, he said.
The comp plan includes provisions for public involvement for periodic review of the plan, but no longer specifies an automatic review every five years, as in some earlier drafts.
Although the plan has been adopted, there remains the potential for legal challenges. Two environmental organizations, the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Futurewise, appealed the county’s environmental analysis of the plan earlier this year, arguing that it was inadequate in its assessment of water availability and other resources. The county’s review was upheld by the county’s hearing examiner in November. MVCC has not made a decision on future appeals, according to a board member.
The county’s new comp plan, the plans for the Methow Valley, and related maps, are available online at www.okanogancounty.org/planning.