Four alternative approaches offered
By Marcy Stamper
How do you want the county to look in the future? How many houses and commercial buildings can your neighborhood accommodate? Should land be preserved for agriculture and open space? What steps does the county need to take to manage water and wildfire risk?
Now that Okanogan County has released a new draft of its comprehensive plan, county residents have an opportunity to weigh in on the fundamental qualities that define their lifestyle and drive the county’s economy. The plan is accompanied by an analysis of the environmental impact of this proposed approach to growth.
At 58 pages, the new plan includes sections on water rights, transportation and essential public facilities. Many sections, including those on water quality and quantity and wildfire, have been revised.
The updated plan and environmental impact statement (EIS) are the culmination of six years of work after the county’s last comp plan, adopted in 2014, was successfully challenged in court for not adequately addressing water quality and quantity, wildfire risk, and agriculture.
The plan begins with a vision statement that affirms the county’s “pride in our Native American heritage, and pioneer and mining history.”
Although the plan is a blueprint for development for the entire county, it notes at the outset that the county’s diversity guides local preferences and lifestyles. “Okanogan County is vast and beautiful. The diverse and rugged natural environment has fostered a range of historic use and distinct communities,” the plan says in the vision statement. “This plan supports the opportunity for the residents of geographically and culturally distinct areas to develop sub-area plans that reflect their community values.”
The plan currently contains two sub-area plans with unique guidelines — one for the upper Methow Valley, and one for the Methow Valley as far south as Gold Creek. Some in the Methow Valley have advocated extending the special plan for the Methow Valley further south to Pateros to encompass the entire Methow watershed.
The plan contains provisions for other regions to develop their own local approaches to development.
Comp plans are used as the basis for all land-use planning. That includes the zone code, which directs where building can take place, how close your
neighbors can be, and where forests and farming should be preserved. The comp plan ultimately guides where everything from airports to kennels to junkyards can be located.
The county’s new plan commits to making a clear connection between watersheds and land use by drawing on science about water availability and climate change.
The plan anticipates that historic patterns of low population growth will continue. It anticipates the county’s population (42,132 in 2018) will grow by about 1,000 people every five years, reaching 45,000 by 2035.
State law requires all counties to preserve agriculture. Okanogan County’s draft comp plan points to the historic and contemporary importance of agriculture as the county’s major economic generator. But it acknowledges that agricultural lands will be converted to other uses, with implications for water use.
The comp plan provides for a review every five years to ensure that the plan keeps up with population changes, economic shifts, and environmental and climate realities.
The 15-page EIS contains four alternatives. The county will choose one alternative to guide how the county manages growth and where it will take place.
• Alternative 1 keeps the existing 2014 plan as is. The 2014 plan relies on the review of individual development proposals to determine where growth should occur. It assumes that many existing parcels won’t be developed because they’re not in a desirable location or have other problems that make development unfeasible, according to the EIS.
• Alternative 2 designates areas near cities for expansion and directs growth to follow existing transportation routes. It anticipates higher population growth than Alternative 1, but relies on traditionally modest growth and market demand to dictate the location and intensity of rural development. It anticipates that the physical and legal availability of water will affect rural development.
• Alternative 3 places more restrictions on growth in rural areas. It directs growth to towns and cities. It uses strategies such as larger lot sizes to preserve farmland and to minimize residential wildfire risk. To guide growth, it uses the connection between housing density and water availability, as well as plans for critical areas and shoreline management.
• Alternative 4 was proposed by the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) during the public comment on a 2018 draft of the comp plan. The Okanogan County Planning Department chose to include it as one more approach to growth.
Alternative 4 directs growth to towns and cities and places even more restrictions on rural development. It uses broader, landscape-based designations, rather than underlying zoning, to preserve rural areas and avoid conflicting uses. It includes water mitigation strategies to preserve water for fish and agriculture and to avoid development in areas without adequate water. It also contains more explicit development guidelines for fire-prone areas.
This version of the plan and EIS were developed after input from the community in 2018, after the county released an earlier revision of the 2014 plan. Since then, with a new county planning director and new representatives on the county’s planning commission, the plan has undergone still more revisions.
After the Planning Department and planning commissioners review and incorporate public feedback on this new draft, the county commissioners will hold their own hearing. Ultimately, the county commissioners are responsible for adopting a new plan. The commissioners are expected to review and adopt the plan in April or May.
MVCC and the environmental organization Futurewise challenged the 2014 comp plan in court, contending that it didn’t protect water quality or quantity. The lawsuit also said the plan didn’t protect land for farming nor address wildfire risk. The Yakama Nation also sued the county, saying the zoning code that was based on the plan failed to protect the quality and quantity of groundwater.
An agreement in Okanogan County Superior Court committed the commissioners to review the plan, taking these issues into account, and to adopt a new plan by the end of 2018. Although the county issued a new draft and solicited input, the county didn’t meet that deadline. This draft plan and EIS pick up on that process.