County plan may cause harm, say concerned groups
By Marcy Stamper
The current draft of the county’s plan to protect shorelines and regulate development near rivers and lakes could actually harm them, say two citizens’ groups in the Methow Valley.
The Methow Valley Citizens’ Council and the Mazama Advisory Committee are concerned that the plan allows building too close to waterways, increasing the chances that people will resort to dikes and emergency reinforcements to protect homes from flooding.
The two groups say the new draft of the Shoreline Master Program (SMP), which the Okanogan County planning commission began to review in February, eliminates important protections of lakes and rivers that have been in effect countywide for almost three decades.
Okanogan County has been working on an update of its SMP for 10 years. In fact, the previous board of county commissioners was ready in 2011 to send the new draft to the state Department of Ecology, but when commissioners Ray Campbell and Sheilah Kennedy took office, the board decided to conduct its own review of the plan, according to Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston. Ecology must approve all SMPs.
Both the new draft shorelines plan and the one that was close to completion four years ago allow construction within 200 feet of a lake or river. Development in that zone — defined as the shoreline jurisdiction — has been prohibited by the county’s current SMP, last amended in 1996 from the 1987 original plan. The new version would also allow new lot lines to be drawn up to the water’s edge.
The SMP is mandated by the state, and Okanogan County is one of 260 local jurisdictions required to bring their plans up to date. It’s a big undertaking — the current version of the county’s SMP is 132 pages long, plus eight appendices, maps and tables.
But the plan has important implications for new development along shorelines, for protection of people and structures from landslides and floods, and for preservation of water quality and wetlands. Shorelines plans also protect critical habitat and promote recreational opportunities and public access.
In addition to their own reading of the plan, the commissioners contracted in 2013 with attorney Sandy Mackie with the law firm Perkins Coie for a legal review of the 2011 draft.
Suggestions from Mackie and the commissioners have been incorporated into the current version. A primary change in the new draft is to apply the state’s six shoreline designations, replacing the 10 categories the county used earlier, said Huston.
These designations are derived from a scoring system based on how land is now used, its ecological function, and its potential for development. Scoring for Okanogan County shorelines was done by contractors when the county first started updating the SMP, said Huston. Planners must assign a designation (such as natural, rural-conservancy or high-intensity) to every shoreline throughout the county.
Another key part of shoreline planning is to protect the ecology of lakes, rivers and wetlands — what is called “no net loss” of existing functionality. A shoreline restoration plan is one of the most important parts of the SMP, according to Ecology. Without a well-designed restoration plan, most local governments probably cannot meet the “no net loss” standard, they say.
Shorelines staff from Ecology have advised the county in the course of the update process over the past decade. Huston said Ecology had done an informal review of the current draft and had not pointed to any serious problems. In previous drafts, Ecology asked the county to require wider buffers along shorelines and to increase public access.
How many buildable lots?
The effects the plan would have on shorelines are covered in a cumulative impacts analysis, which is in an appendix to the new draft.
“It’s essentially a buildable-lands analysis,” said Huston. “It determines how many lots could you make, and then how many can you build on?”
Okanogan County Natural Resource Planner Angela Hubbard devised a formula to calculate the actual number of buildable lots along the county’s shorelines, taking into account shoreline protections, zoning and other regulations.
The resulting chart shows some areas with the potential for hundreds of new housing sites, such as Bonaparte Creek in Tonasket. But many bodies of water in the Methow Valley have a “negative” number of buildable lots. The negative number means that, while these lots could theoretically be created, other regulations prohibit building there, said Huston.
Because you can’t build within the 100-year floodplain in the Methow Review District, merely being able to divide the land would not actually mean new structures, he said. As a result, the area around Mazama got a score of –1,261 for potential future development. Using the same formula, Patterson Lake could have 25 new residences.
Any changes to a shoreline program apply only to future development and would not require anyone to tear down an existing structure, according to Ecology.
The Methow citizens’ groups have also expressed concerns about how various county plans work together. While the shoreline area is defined as everything within 200 feet of the ordinary high-water mark, rivers naturally move.
The Mazama Advisory Committee is concerned that the definitions in the shoreline plan and in the Critical Areas Ordinance, which covers sensitive habitats and hazard-prone areas, are inconsistent. Confusion over guidelines in the two documents could lead people to build in areas that could someday become a new river channel, they say.
“If you build in the CMZ [channel-migration zone], you will require structural shoreline stabilization at some point. Period,” wrote the Mazama committee in its comments to the county.
Long, costly process
The state provides grants to counties to assist with updating the SMP. Okanogan County has received almost $750,000 since it started the process 10 years ago. Most of the money was spent on the contractors who did the initial studies, water-body inventory and scoring for the shoreline designations, said Huston.
The county recently received another $30,000 grant from Ecology to assist with the current update, said Huston. Much of the new funding has been paid to Mackie for the legal review; it has also been used for mailings and related expenses, said Huston.
The 2013 agreement with Mackie was for $250 per hour of administrative work and $300 per hour for litigation. The most recent contract was not available at press time.
The initial deadline for updates to local shoreline plans around the state was the end of 2014, but many local governments — including Okanogan County — have been granted an extension. More than half of the updates have not been completed yet, according to Ecology.
The planning commissioners started their deliberations and held a public hearing on the SMP in February. They will determine whether they want more changes or want to send this draft as is to the county commissioners at their meeting on Monday, March 23 at 7 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room.
Comments on the plan can still be submitted to the county commissioners, at firstname.lastname@example.org or to email@example.com. The county commissioners will hold a hearing before the plan is submitted to Ecology for review.
Once Ecology approves the plan, the agency will have its own process for public input. When finalized, Okanogan County’s plan will become part of the overall state Shoreline Master Program.
The draft plan and appendices, as well as the county’s existing SMP, are available at okanogancounty.org/planning.