Latest draft document offers alternative visions
The county’s comprehensive planning process has always been a little hard to grasp. By design, the plan focuses on lofty visions rather than nitty-gritty, on-the-ground details. With sections on groundwater, mining resource lands, and neighborhood commercial centers, the plan can seem complex and wonky.
But the comp plan is vital to the quality of life and economic vitality of Okanogan County because it guides where growth should occur, whether the county will be rural or more suburban, and what will drive the economy. Regulations including the county’s zoning code, which outlines land uses for specific parcels, are based on the comp plan.
Now, as the county revamps its comp plan and looks at how any changes will affect the environment, people are again being asked to share their vision about the county’s future.
People have just over a week — until Friday, Jan. 4 — to provide their vision and topics the county should look at when thinking about how the new plan will affect the environment. People can comment on anything that’s important to them — that can include wildlife habitat, agriculture, roads and transportation, air and water quality, or tourism.
The county announced the formal scoping process for the environmental review in November. In scoping, people can comment on environmental impacts, suggest ways to mitigate those impacts, and propose alternative approaches for growth.
The resulting environmental impact statement will define key issues and help the county commissioners make an informed decision on the plan and the county’s future.
Staying out of court
The county is revising the comp plan because the plan adopted by the former board of commissioners in 2014 was challenged in court by the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) and Futurewise. The two conservation groups argued that the 2014 plan doesn’t adequately address water quality or quantity, preserve farmland, or address the risk of wildfire.
Last year, the parties agreed to give the county a chance to address the central issues in the lawsuit — mainly water and wildfire — without going to court. That deadline is fast approaching — the county was supposed to have a new comp plan and zoning code by the end of 2018.
The case combines lawsuits over the comp plan and zoning, plus a separate case filed by the Yakama Nation on water issues.
If the stay expires, the county would have to propose an extension, or the parties will move ahead with the lawsuit, said Tim Trohimovich, director of planning and law for Futurewise.
2,000 new households?
When it announced scoping in early November, the county also issued a new draft plan. The county based the draft on a mid-range population projection — an increase of 3,511 people, or 1,950 households — by 2040.
The draft presents three alternatives based on this growth. The first is the “no-action” alternative, which keeps the 2014 plan as is.
The second alternative changes where agricultural and forest-resource lands should be, and designates zones for city expansion. Growth would follow existing transportation routes and be informed by other county plans that protect water.
The third alternative places greater restrictions on rural development, guiding growth to city-expansion areas. It also favors larger lot sizes to avoid conflict with agriculture and to minimize risk from wildfire.
Perspectives on growth
Several people shared their thoughts this week — from a variety of perspectives — on the comp plan and its potential environmental impacts.
In a letter to its supporters, MVCC tried to clarify this phase of the comp plan review. “What’s needed by Jan. 4 is simple, more like a laundry list,” they said. “If you get stuck, ask yourself: What things do I hold dear that are impacted by growth?”
MVCC is concerned that the comp plan doesn’t protect critical areas such as wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat. Because the county is so far behind in updating its Critical Areas Ordinance, MVCC wants the plan to guarantee that the county will use the most up-to-date science and maps to protect critical areas, said Lorah Super, MVCC’s program director.
MVCC is still working on comments, but will probably propose that the county consider a fourth alternative for growth, said Super. MVCC’s board is also discussing its options as the court deadline looms.
Futurewise will suggest topics the county should address in its environmental impact statement. Those include safeguarding water quality and quantity, protecting fish and wildlife, and conserving land for agriculture, said Trohimovich.
Futurewise also wants the county to analyze any impacts the comp plan and zoning code will have on firefighting capacity and fire hazards. Based on the county’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, development has already exceeded the ability of the county’s fire services to protect its residents, said Trohimovich.
Travis Thornton, an attorney based in Winthrop who serves on the Methow Watershed Council, said he’s concerned the comp plan is out of sync with state water law.
A patchwork of water laws and court rulings has created a situation that interferes with the county’s ability to direct development to the areas it deems most appropriate, said Thornton. For example, Winthrop and Twisp don’t have extra water and, while there’s water reserved for the Methow Valley, it can’t currently be transferred to the towns, said Thornton.
“The comp plan is modernizing the vision for land use in the county, but there’s no corresponding modernization of water law and rules,” said Thornton.
Not everyone believes that 2014 plan should be scrapped. Dick Ewing, who’s been on the Methow Watershed Council for two decades and serves on the board of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, likes the existing plan because it allows smaller lots and denser development.
One-acre lots would help address the need for affordable housing in the county, said Ewing, who offered his comments as a private citizen. The Farm Bureau is still reviewing the plan and hasn’t finished its input, said Ewing.
Smaller lots could also help farmers survive by providing places for farmworker housing. Ewing wants public lands to be counted as part of the county’s agricultural base because of their importance for cattle grazing.
“You can limit water and hope you’re right, or you can allow development until you can demonstrate that water is no longer available,” said Ewing, who said he opposes setting limits ahead of time.
To comment on the county’s future
The comp plan and related documents are available at www.okanogancounty.org/planning in the first box below the scoping notice for the plan, which starts with “Threshold SEPA Determination.” There is also a link for “Draft Comprehensive Plan” and three maps of alternatives.
The deadline for submitting scoping comments for the environmental impact statement is Friday, Jan. 4. Comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. People can also comment on the draft plan when they submit scoping comments.
For more information, call Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston at (509) 422-7218.