By Marcy Stamper
It’s been two-and-a-half years since the Okanogan County commissioners signed off on a revised draft to the plan that covers development near — and protects the ecological function of — lakes and rivers, and almost two years since the public had a chance to comment on the plan. The update is the county’s first revision to its Shoreline Master Program (SMP) since 1996, and the first major update since 1987.
Over the past two years, the state Department of Ecology has been reviewing the SMP, the public comments, and the county’s responses to those comments. People will find some significant changes since the June 2015 draft approved by the previous board of county commissioners, according to Lennard Jordan, a senior shoreline planner with Ecology.
“It’s come a long way from the draft originally submitted to Ecology and what we will hand back — it will be better for the county,” said Jordan.
Although the county and Ecology listened to and considered all input, not all ideas will be reflected in the revised plan, said Jordan.
Shoreline master programs protect areas within 200 feet of a river or lake, provide for the public’s enjoyment of public shores and waters, and guide development along shorelines.
Ecology’s draft will come with a list of changes required for the plan to meet the intent of the state’s Shoreline Management Act, but the county has latitude about how to meet those requirements, said Jordan. Shoreline programs typically go back and forth before arriving at a mutually acceptable draft, he said.
Among the major changes to the plan are better protections of critical areas, said Jordan. State law specifies five critical areas — wetlands, frequently flooded areas, fish and wildlife habitat, geologic hazards, and groundwater. The county had not properly designated these areas, making that the No. 1 comment received on the plan, said Jordan.
The section on public access to waterways has also changed considerably, since the county’s previous version didn’t meet the intent and guidelines of state law, he said.
Shoreline plans require public access — ways for the public to reach and enjoy the water’s edge, travel on lakes and rivers, and view the water — while still protecting private-property rights. The guidelines emphasize water access through public parks and suggest height restrictions and view corridors to preserve access in private developments.
Ecology staff have been working with the county — in particular, Planning Department staff and County Commissioner Chris Branch, who, with his background in planning, is well versed in the goals of the plan, said Jordan.
When the commissioners sent an updated draft to Ecology this August, Branch voted against it. In an email about his vote, Branch said, “While I acknowledge that the other commissioners are interested in moving the plan along since it has been debated for so long, I was interested in assessing any losses or gains for the shoreline resources as a result of several changes in the original draft that I’d been involved with.”
Over the past few months, the commissioners have been taking another look at the plan and Ecology’s recommendations, said Branch, who called them “relatively minor issues” that the county has been able to resolve.
Another group that’s been tracking the progress on the plan since the 2016 public review is the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC). Although the official comment period is closed, MVCC has been commucating thorugh the organization’s executive director, Brian de Place.
“MVCC commented during the environmental review and made sure to comment every time there were changes,” said de Place. “We speak with Ecology in general. It’s part of our role as the advocacy group here — to make sure we’re reaching out and communicating with decision-makers.”
Jordan said Ecology has kept MVCC in the loop because the group had been so involved in the commenting phase and because most comments reflected MVCC’s concerns.
One of those concerns was that the county hadn’t distinguished between buffers and setbacks. A setback is the distance from the edge of a building to the shoreline, and a buffer is an area within that buffer that preserves natural habitat and vegetation, and both serve critical functions, said de Place. A lawn or rip-rap wouldn’t qualify as a buffer, he said.
De Place said the county’s most recent draft, which was sent to Ecology in August, shows “incremental progress in protection to shorelines.” The plan calls buffers “vegetative conservation areas,” increases the total setback, and designates rivers as fish and wildlife habitat, said de Place.
Gina McCoy, a watershed hydrologist and fluvial engineer who specializes in the physical and biological functions of streams, took particular interest in the plan’s technical underpinnings when she commented last year.
McCoy’s primary concerns were that the SMP didn’t include the most up-to-date scientific information about the condition of Okanogan County’s rivers — for example, the location of rip-rap used to reinforce a river bank. Rip-rap substantially degrades the ecological function of rivers, said McCoy, so it’s crucial to take it into account in any assessment of river health and functionality.
Although there have been several detailed assessments of rivers in the Methow Valley over the past decade, the SMP didn’t include information gathered in those studies, said McCoy. Without this information, the assessment of the health of the county’s rivers ends up being overly positive, she said.
McCoy was also concerned that the working draft didn’t fulfill another requirement — for no net loss of ecological function in the shoreline management zone — since the plan used habitat-restoration efforts to offset the ecological harm of future shoreline development.
A significant change from the county’s old plan is the removal of a prohibition on subdivision along shorelines. The restriction meant that a developer could create a single lot that paralleled the water’s edge, but not lots of skinny parcels, each with its own with waterfront access. Okanogan County’s old plan was unique in Washington for restricting this development, said Jordan.
Many commenters urged the county to preserve the restriction, but the county chose to eliminate in the 2015 draft. Although it’s not required, Ecology would allow the restriction if the county wants to preserve it, said Jordan.
Although the SMP has changed significantly since 2015, there won’t be another public-comment period before it’s formally adopted, said Jordan.
Before the shoreline plan is returned to the county commissioners for their formal review, the director of Ecology must sign off on the draft, which Jordan expects in early 2018.
The county will have to review Ecology’s recommendations and required changes. There is no more public comment, but there is an appeal period.
The county’s update, which started in 2005, was actually due in 2014, but the process has taken considerably longer.
The next update — just an amendment, not a complete do-over — is due in 2022, so that process will start in about three years, said Jordan.
“Stay tuned,” said Jordan. “I’m really hoping to get a conditional approval out to the county. I hope it’s something they can administer that will benefit the county’s shorelines.”