Public hearing draws engaged crowd
Speakers at a packed hearing on the county’s emergency moratorium on land subdivisions in the Methow want to preserve the valley’s open space and agriculture. But their opinions about how to safeguard that rural character were diametrically opposed.
The three Okanogan County commissioners, interim planning director, clerk of the board, and chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney came to the Winthrop Barn for a hearing on the moratorium on Monday night (Jan. 27). The commissioners adopted the 2-year ban on subdivisions on an interim basis in December.
The moratorium stops all land subdivisions in the Methow watershed with a few exceptions, including proof of another water source. It doesn’t affect existing parcels, even if they’re undeveloped. It creates a water-study area for the entire watershed, from Lost River to Pateros.
Most speakers at Monday’s hearing were steadfastly opposed to the subdivision ban, even on a temporary basis. Many said the ban penalized people — particularly farmers and ranchers — who’ve preserved open space and haven’t split their land into small lots for residential development. Several said that being able to subdivide a portion of their land is the only way for farmers to preserve ag land for future generations and have enough money in their retirement years.
“It doesn’t seem fair that people who value open space will be penalizing people with open space,” Ed Alkire said.
But others testifying said a hiatus in subdivisions is necessary to preserve the valley’s scarce water supplies and water quality. It’s an opportunity to determine, as a group, where development should take place, they said.
“Water quality and the health of the Methow Valley are inseparable,” Maggie Coon, chair of the board of Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC), said.
Testimony was emotional and heartfelt. While the issue goes to the core of people’s financial well-being, identification with the place they call home, and concerns about survival in a changing climate, speakers were uniformly respectful. Several spoke of the need to work together as a community to gather adequate information to make sound decisions that benefit everyone.
About 85 people attended the hearing and 24 testified. Fifty-nine percent opposed the ban and 41% supported it.
Before the public testimony, the commissioners explained that they had imposed the temporary subdivision ban because they’d been threatened with litigation over unlawful development on lots without legal water. The Methow Valley has to come together in a group effort to determine what we want for our future, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said. “These are extremely difficult decisions to make,” he said.
“Somebody called this a train wreck, but I call it a stop at the station,” Commissioner Chris Branch said. The moratorium is necessary so the county doesn’t dig a deeper hole that could result in more problems, he said.
Rendezvous-area resident Phil Millam agreed. “This is a necessary — but painful — kick in the pants,” an opportunity to figure out how many new homes the valley can accommodate, he said.
But another speaker said, “It’s very unjust to say the valley is filled up now — to tell people, ‘It’s a beautiful place, but there’s no more room.’”
“There’s a laudable reason for the moratorium, but I certainly disagree,” said Ron Perrow. Perrow, who’s been involved in water planning since 1981, explained his calculations that the Methow has billions of gallons of water for residential use.
Many speakers asked how the county would compensate people who’d been counting on the ability to subdivide their property as a source of income. One woman said the county assessor had drastically reduced the value of her land because she can’t build on it.
Several members of the Woodward family — three generations of ranchers who own about 200 acres — talked about the impact to their family farm. They’ve been negotiating a deal to conserve land for agriculture while providing retirement income. This ordinance unfairly harms large landowners who didn’t develop their property right away, they said.
Others said the ordinance protects property owners. Lorah Super, program director for MVCC, said current county policy jeopardizes property owners who’ve received unlawful permits. Melanie Rowland, an MVCC board member and attorney, said the ordinance brings the county into compliance with water law in effect for almost two decades.
Alyssa Jumars, who owns a 10-acre farm near Carlton, said she was confused by the intent of the ordinance because, although it stops new subdivisions, there are already thousands of lots where people can build. The ordinance takes away the value of farmers’ most important asset and their most important tool, she said. “It will have a profound impact on a few families who’ve managed to hold onto large parcels of land,” Jumars said to applause.
“You’re not going to convince me there’s a shortage of water. I think it’s a control issue,” Larry Smith, whose family owns considerable acreage, said. “I don’t like the growth better than anybody else, but it’s here.”
Several speakers said that climate change will make water even less available and that the county has an obligation to take that into account in its land-use planning. Two speakers urged the county to consider the needs of Winthrop and Twisp, which both confront water limits for future development.
After the testimony, the commissioners acknowledged the complexity of the issue and the potential for further upheaval from court rulings. Having an interim ordinance will allow the county to be very cautious and to study water issues. “Otherwise, we’ll be in court,” Branch said.
“This is a very complicated issue. We barely see the light of day before some lawsuit makes us back up and start over,” Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro said.
More time to comment
Many speakers asked the Okanogan County commissioners for more time so people can understand the subdivision and water issue and provide comments.
The commissioners scheduled another hearing for Tuesday, Feb. 25, at 2 p.m. at their hearing room in Okanogan. People can submit written testimony until that date to Laleña Johns, clerk of the board, at email@example.com.
The commissioners expect to decide on the ordinance at that hearing — whether to keep it in place, amend it, or rescind it, County Commissioner Jim DeTro said.
For a copy of Ordinance 2019-11, go to www.okanogancounty.org/planning and click on the long link near the top of the page (beneath the boxes) that starts with “An ordinance adopting as interim land use controls….”
For more information, contact Interim Planning Director Angie Hubbard at (509) 422-7090 or firstname.lastname@example.org.