Editor’s note: This version of the article was updated from the version that appeared in the March 6, 2019 issue of the Methow Valley News to correct information about the outcome of the lawsuit over the plan.
Most of the input came from Methow Valley residents
Although Okanogan County’s comprehensive plan outlines the future of the entire county, almost all the people who told the county what that growth should look like are from the Methow Valley.
The plan is being revised after a lawsuit by two environmental groups that sued the county shortly after the county commissioners adopted a new comp plan at the end of 2014. In the lawsuit, the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) and Futurewise claimed that the plan didn’t adequately address water needs or wildfire risk. They also claimed that the plan didn’t protect enough land for farming.
Although they didn’t take any position on the adequacy of the plan, the Okanogan County commissioners agreed to take a fresh look at it. The county is now revamping the plan under a stay agreed upon in Okanogan County Superior Court, which gave the county until the end of 2018 to redo the plan. Although county staff and commissioners are working on revisions, they didn’t meet the deadline.
For now, nothing has changed in court, said Futurewise attorney Tim Trohimovich last week. “We would hope a reasonable extension to the stay can be arrived at,” he said.
Going over feedback
The county solicited input on the plan in January about topics to determine whether the plan will have an effect on the environment. Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston is currently going through those suggestions, but it’s taking longer because they received “a fairly healthy number of comments,” he said.
Public comments and the county’s responses will be part of the draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which Huston expects will be ready for the planning commission at its monthly meeting at the end of April. The commission will hold a public hearing on both the working draft of the comp plan and the EIS.
The county received about 70 comment letters with suggestions for the environmental review, plus dozens of supporting documents on wildfire, hydrogeology and agriculture. Not only were the majority of the comments from people in the Methow, but many specifically cited recommendations from MVCC, including support for a fourth alternative the group submitted.
The county’s draft comp plan includes three alternatives: the “no-action” alternative, which keeps the 2014 plan as is, and two that direct growth to existing towns and preserve land for farming, forestry and mining. The biggest difference in those two alternatives is the extent of restriction on rural development.
MVCC’s fourth alternative goes even further in directing growth to cities and towns, and in designating areas where intensive residential, commercial and industrial development would be discouraged. Those rural areas would be preserved for farming, forests and mineral uses.
MVCC encouraged its supporters to emphasize the importance of climate change, wildfire safety, water, and transportation infrastructure when commenting on the plan. The organization also asked people to back the new alternative.
MVCC also urged the county to look at its zoning code at the same time as the comp plan, because zoning applies the principles of the plan to specific places on the ground.
Almost one-fourth of those who sent comments to the county followed MVCC’s advice, some telling the county simply, “I am writing in support of Alternative 4 as proposed by the Methow Valley Citizens Council.”
Feedback on the plan
Concerns about environmental impacts of the plan – and how to minimize and prepare for them – made up the bulk of public comments. Major themes were as follows:
• Climate change
The plan needs to be more explicit in looking at the impacts of climate change – in particular, on fire risk and water quality and quantity.
It’s essential to consider the effects of extreme seasonal variability such as flooding, reduced snowpack, increased drought and hotter temperatures.
• Agriculture, forest lands, recreation
The county did a good job showing why designation and conservation of resource lands is important to the county’s people, environment and economy.
Designate areas appropriate for marijuana operations.
The county’s logo has four sections that represent mining, logging, agriculture and recreation/wildlife. But the plan downplays the importance of recreation and wildlife on the county’s economy and quality of life.
• Water and air
Evaluate the impacts of providing potable water to existing lots – and to new lots that could be created through more subdivision.
“Let’s be honest in recognizing towns and municipalities are inextricably tied to their relationship with water – both groundwater and in nearby streams and rivers.”
Consider impacts of smoke and light pollution on air quality.
• Wildfire and other hazards
Address wildfire safety for residents and first responders. Look at the vulnerability of homes and property, as well as emergency-access and evacuation routes.
Create incentives for fire-resistant construction and ways of protecting homes and buildings from wildfire, floods and erosion.
Restrict development in areas with steep, one-lane roads to reduce risk of wildfire.
• Growth and overall planning
Seasonal homes are a significant part of the housing stock in the county, and they need to be included in population projections to adequately estimate the effects of growth.
Analyze the costs of providing services such as fire protection, law enforcement and roads to new developments.
Provide more affordable housing.
Use geological and watershed boundaries instead of school district boundaries for planning.
Maintain the county’s rural character when considering industrial and commercial projects.
• Plan needs clarification
Most commenters said the plan was improved over the 2014 version, but others said it was confusing and difficult to know what had been changed.
“I tried to figure out what was going on with the three alternative maps and found it impossible to decipher.”
The three rural designations – Rural Resource/Low Density, Rural Resource/Recreation, and Rural/High Density – are confusing. It’s not clear which would ensure that land for agriculture, forestry, and mineral lands will be protected.
“Anything that can be done to make things more simple would be good.”
The process for revising the plan includes numerous public-comment periods – on the draft EIS, the final EIS, and the comp plan itself. Both the planning commission and the county commissioners will hold hearings. When everything has been finalized, the county commissioners will adopt a new comp plan. People can comment on the comp plan throughout this entire process, said Huston.
A copy of the plan is available on the Planning Department website at okanogancounty.org/planning in the box for “Comprehensive Plan Update.”
How much new building does the county allow?
To have a better understanding of development in the county – how many lots have already been built on; how many lots are ready for development; and how many new lots can be created – the Okanogan County Planning Department is doing a buildable-lands analysis. The analysis looks at the county’s major watersheds, the Methow and the Okanogan.
The analysis for the Methow is split into the seven reaches used in watershed planning. The analysis shows that in most reaches, about half of the existing lots are already developed (with a house or just a garage). Only the Lower Methow, which goes from Twisp to Pateros, has a preponderance of undeveloped lots – double the number that have been developed. There are no buildable parcels in the Early Winters reach.
The county also looked at how many new lots could be created by subdividing existing parcels. Most reaches could get hundreds of new, buildable lots. But in the Lower Methow, which allows for the smallest lots – mostly 1 acre – almost 16,000 more lots could be carved out. By contrast, the Twisp River only has 78 lots left to subdivide, which could produce another 274 lots.
The analysis will help the county evaluate whether there’s enough water, and look at the traffic impacts and wildfire risks of new development, said Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston.
Although the analysis uses raw numbers, they county is also looking at historical development trends, such as how many houses are typically built in a year, said Huston.
Total current lots
Potential new lots
(current + potential)
There are no buildable lots in the Early Winters reach.
Upper Methow River