Appellants OK with stay during plan review
By Ann McCreary
A lawsuit challenging Okanogan County’s comprehensive plan and zoning code has been suspended for now, while county commissioners reconsider the planning and zoning documents.
The Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC), which filed the lawsuit with Futurewise, welcomed the stay issued last week by Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Christopher Culp.
Earlier this year the county commission, with two new members on the board, committed to reopen consideration of the comprehensive plan and zoning code to address concerns raised by Futurewise and MVCC, and another lawsuit by the Yakama Nation.
The comp plan was adopted in 2015 and the zoning code was adopted in 2016, and both were challenged in the lawsuit by MVCC and Futurewise, which claimed the county failed to protect water quality, agricultural lands and wildlife habitat, and did not address wildfire risk.
The Yakama Nation filed a separate lawsuit against the zoning code, claiming the ordinance threatened their fishing rights because it didn’t protect groundwater. The Yakama Nation dropped its lawsuit in April, after county commissioners agreed to a legal stipulation that requires them to repeal the comp plan and zoning code and adopt a new plan and code by Dec. 31, 2018.
“Judge Culp’s ruling makes sense,” Brian de Place, MVCC’s executive director, said Monday (June 26). “Let’s give the county commissioners a chance to deal with the concerns we and the Yakamas raised in our appeals. There’s no need for the county or our groups to spend more money on litigation now. Instead, we should all focus our energy on good land use planning for the county.”
The judge’s stay suspends legal proceedings, but allows the case brought by MVCC and Futurewise to move forward at a later time if necessary.
“We can re-look at the code, which is exactly what we want. MVCC can engage in meaningful participation as part of the public outreach. If we end up with the same outcome, we’re able to move forward” with the legal challenge, de Place said.
The time frame agreed to by commissioners gives the county just under a year and a half to adopt a new comprehensive plan and zoning code. The comp plan adopted in 2015 took eight years to finalize.
In his ruling, Culp referred to the stipulation with the Yakama Nation that requires the county to reconsider the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance and adopt new land use planning documents by Dec. 31, 2018.
“While parties disagree at this time about county actions, they may agree later given the county’s commitment to review the entire comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance process,” Culp wrote.
As a result, the legal case “is not yet ripe for consideration … It may well be that after Dec. 31, 2018, the matter comes back before the Court,” Culp wrote.
“Consequently, in order to allow the entire process to play out and to avoid the need for what is potentially an unnecessary ruling, the court stays this matter until the new comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance … is adopted or Jan. 1, 2018, whichever is sooner,” Culp wrote.
After county commissioners agreed to re-open the comp plan and zoning code as a result of the agreement with the Yakama Nation, MVCC and Futurewise told the county they were willing to suspend legal proceedings to allow the process to play out, de Place said.
However, the county would not agree to a stay, so the lawsuit proceeded. Culp heard oral arguments in early May, “where we repeated our willingness to stay the case until the new comp plan and zoning code are adopted,” de Place said.
The decision to revisit the plan does not mean that commissioners will definitely make changes, but Andy Hover, who was elected to the seat formerly held by Ray Campbell, has said that the current comp plan has shortcomings, including failure to address wildfire risks.
Hover and Chris Branch, who defeated incumbent Sheilah Kennedy, joined the commission in January. Commissioner Jim DeTro, who worked with Campbell and Kennedy on the existing comp plan and zoning code, agreed with Hover and Branch about reopening the process.
“We need to address the fact that we live in a semi-arid climate,” Hover said Tuesday (June 27). “I would take a close look at wording that speaks to wildfire, and what the state and federal government and our peers have done in response.”
Hover said the county is currently working on updating its shoreline master program. “We want to get continuity between shoreline, zoning and comp plans,” he said.
Hover said no schedule is set yet to begin review of the comprehensive plan and zoning code.
“I think a lot of credit goes to the new commissioners,” de Place said. “They early on wanted to reach out to groups that had not been able to provide input as much as they wanted. They’ve done a fantastic job of trying to be inclusive. As part of that they’ve committed to opening up the process. We’re excited to engage substantively.”
MVCC and Futurewise have contended that the comprehensive plan and zoning code adopted by the previous county commission do not comply with state law, and neither provide for “future development consistent with water availability or Firewise planning, among other issues,” de Place said.
The Dec. 31, 2018, deadline to revise and adopt a comprehensive plan and zoning code “makes sense … it’s very valuable to set a deadline,” he said.