Public reaction to Okanogan County’s moratorium on the creation of new lots in the Methow watershed has been varied and impassioned. Some people praised the county commissioners for taking a long-overdue step to evaluate water use, but others said the ban penalizes people who’ve refrained from converting large land parcels into residential development.
Comments on the ordinance that stops land subdivisions for two years also reveal underlying tensions between people and organizations that share goals of preserving the valley’s rural character and farming traditions. Questions about water — and the complex web of laws that govern it — typically stir up strong feelings and, in this case, the issue strikes especially close to home. The comments lay out contradictory interpretations of the law and different ideas about how to manage growth in the Methow Valley.
The subdivision moratorium in the Methow watershed was in part a response to the threat of litigation, said the county commissioners when they imposed it on an interim basis in December. The Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) and Futurewise sued Okanogan County in 2014 over its comprehensive plan, saying the plan didn’t adequately account for water. Last year, the two groups grew frustrated that the county missed a court deadline to review the plan and threatened to reopen the lawsuit if the county continued to allow the creation of new building lots.
In their comments, MVCC said the moratorium is “a necessary first step to limit the risk to the County and property owners posed by continuing approval of land divisions and building permits without legally available water.” But they say it doesn’t go far enough.
The moratorium stops the creation of new building lots, with a few exceptions. Anyone who can show another water source — either a water right or proof they’re trucking water from another location — could qualify for a building permit.
But MVCC says the ban on building permits should be extended to all lots created since a 2002 Supreme Court decision known as Campbell & Gwinn so they can be sure that these people have a legal source of water for residential use.
Many of the 60 people who commented on the interim ban voiced their support for MVCC’s position. “I am writing to voice my strongest support to Methow Valley Citizens Council … We wish to preserve this unique and pristine habitat and its natural resources, specifically its water supply, for its current residents, tourism, and future generations from risky and ill-advised future developments,” wrote one.
A significant number followed MVCC’s lead in suggesting that the county needs a better understanding of available water and changes from climate impacts, as well as a shared vision for how the community wants to prioritize water use.
But others criticized MVCC. One writer, a long-time supporter of the council, said she had cancelled her membership over the issue. She said she’d been working with the Methow Conservancy on a deal to preserve a large tract of farmland in the upper Methow Valley and the moratorium derailed the transaction just before it was finalized.
The Methow Conservancy said the commissioners should have involved the community in a collaborative process in creating the ordinance. A moratorium creates “uncertainty for landowners and brings potential unintended consequences to development, the real estate market, and affordability,” they wrote.
Another writer opposed the ordinance because it will make housing increasingly unaffordable by reducing the number of buildable lots. “I fear a Methow Valley in which our community is socioeconomically homogenous,” she wrote.
Several said that because of their threats of litigation, MVCC should be disqualified from participating in discussions about how to resolve the water issue.
Sandy Mackie, an attorney who advised the county on land-use and water matters for several years, said the moratorium “is not required and should be terminated.”
Mackie acknowledged that the county has an obligation to ensure that adequate water is available, but said the county’s interpretation of state law and court rulings is incorrect. He quoted from the court’s opinion in the Campbell & Gwinn case, which said so-called permit-exempt wells can be used for a “single home, … group use, or … several homes.”
“If several homes… are by definition a ‘Group Use,’… there would be no purpose for including the separate phrase, ‘by several homes’ as that would be duplicative,” Mackie wrote.
Many commenters said they were sympathetic to families who want to sell land for retirement income. “Any time change happens some folks will be more affected than others … But … delay in planning will create a much more difficult water challenge than we already have,” wrote one.
Another opposed the subdivision restriction because it “arbitrarily imposes an unfair burden on a subset of valley property owners” but doesn’t decrease the number of new houses.
The commissioners have kept the moratorium in place at least through July while they seek an opinion from the state attorney general on water law.