By Marcy Stamper
“Leave the Methow alone” was the oft-repeated mantra when the county commissioners were working on the county’s comp plan. People are now waiting to see whether that philosophy will be followed in the county’s zoning code.
Zoning is literally the map for how individual pieces of land throughout the county can be developed. As the Okanogan County commissioners and planning staff rework the county’s zoning code, they are considering several changes to land use in the Methow Valley. They reviewed recommendations from planning staff and the county’s ad hoc zoning committee at their meeting on July 8.
At present, property owners in the Methow who want to add a second residence on their land can build something only half as large as the main house. There are also minimum lot sizes. The commissioners are considering eliminating those restrictions.
In some cases, contractors submit inaccurate plans – for example, starting with a garage but later adding a kitchen – to get around the restrictions, said Ben Rough, senior planner for the county.
Some people are concerned that the change could double the density of an area. For example, on much of the valley floor, lots must be at least 5 acres, but someone could build a second house, making it in effect a 2.5-acre zone. With accessory dwellings, the property owner is not permitted to subdivide the land and sell off one piece, said Rough.
Others mentioned concerns about where these dwellings could be placed on a lot, noting that, without restrictions, they could have a greater impact on the neighbors than on the property owner building the second house.
“There’s a legitimate interest in the Methow Valley about not opening the door too wide—I understand that,” said Rough.
Zoning committee member and Mazama resident John Sunderland noted that zoning should take into account long-standing guidelines established by Methow Valley community groups.
One proposal that could generate considerable interest in the Methow Valley is a change in how the county calculates the number of equivalent residential units (ERUs), which would be the basis for permitting new overnight lodging.
Among the ways counties and municipalities allocate the creation of new lodging units are water supply, sewer capacity or transportation corridors, said Dan Beardslee, the county’s hearing examiner and a member of the zoning committee. “You have to be thoughtful about how you define an ERU, because it can be widely variable,” he said.
Nightly rentals are currently permitted outright in the rest of the county but require a conditional-use permit in the Methow. Still, some people in the lodging industry are concerned that property owners already skirt the permitting process and rent out rooms anyway.
“We joke about the Methow Valley, but the Methow Valley has different pressures. Don’t make nightly rentals so easy that everyone converts [full-time] rentals to nightly rentals,” said Sunderland.
Another proposed change in the Methow would be to allow new gravel pits through a conditional-use permit throughout the Methow Valley. At present, only existing gravel pits and quarries can be operated in rural zones, but County Engineer Josh Thomson said that the Public Works Department incurs considerable expense – $91 per hour for equipment and wages – transporting sand in the winter and gravel during the road-construction season from other parts of the county.
The county is also considering a mechanism that would allow property owners to easily do a one-time subdivision so they can create a small home site on their land. Rough said this would most likely apply to farmers and ranchers who want to retire but remain on their land. They are also contemplating changes that would allow more commercial activity in unincorporated towns such as Malott and Chesaw.
The commissioners asked for an additional month to go through the zoning code and proposed changes. The county’s planning commission will take up the zoning code after the commissioners complete their review, most likely at their August meeting.
The commissioners adopted an interim zoning code when they finished the new comp plan early this year, but the code has to be revised and finalized by the end of the year. They have already extended the interim period by six months.