Other minor revisions for comp plan draft
By Marcy Stamper
The Okanogan County planning commissioners have made minor changes to the county’s comprehensive plan to promote agriculture, recreation and forestry. The modifications to one of four proposed alternatives for the plan came after more than two hours of deliberation at the commission’s meeting on Monday (March 22).
The commissioners also backed a mechanism to accommodate special protections in the Methow Valley that had overwhelming support in public comments.
Following a recommendation from Okanogan County Planning Director Pete Palmer, the planning commission will recommend that the county commissioners appoint a local advisory committee from the Methow to update existing plans for the Methow Valley and the upper Methow Valley/Mazama area, which haven’t been revised in decades. The comp plan provides for what are called “More Completely Planned Areas” to be “responsive to the wide range of landscapes and demographics” in the county.
All but two of the approximately 120 comments received on the comp plan came from the Methow Valley, and most people wanted additional protections to preserve dark skies and prevent ridgetop development. There was also broad support for expanding the Methow Valley subarea almost to Pateros, so that it encompasses the entire Methow watershed, Palmer said. (The Methow subarea currently follows the Methow Valley School District boundaries, which stops at Gold Creek.)
Other common concerns from Methow residents include protecting water quality and quantity and safeguarding habitat for fish and wildlife, Palmer said. A subarea plan is the best place for these protections, rather than the countywide plan, Palmer said.
Once the comp plan has been finalized, the county commissioners would solicit members for the advisory committees and formally appoint them. The local committees would hold community meetings and submit their proposals to the county planning commission, which would then make a recommendation to the county commissioners, Palmer said.
While they didn’t change the language in the plan, the planning commissioners backed expanding eligibility for the local advisory committees to include long-term residents, rather than restricting membership to property owners. The county commissioners would have to formally change this policy for advisory groups, Palmer said.
Where to develop
Many of the planning commissioners emphasized that regulations should be contained in the zoning code, not the comp plan. While they supported designating areas for development along major transportation routes, the planning commissioners deleted references that specified that development shouldn’t extend outside existing fire districts or into critical areas.
The planning commission voted 5-to-1 for the changes. Only Gina McCoy, a representative from the Methow Valley, voted against the revisions.
McCoy repeatedly voiced her concern that the commission’s approach would allow development in areas that already suffer from water scarcity. The comp plan should direct development to towns, where it won’t risk drying up existing wells, McCoy said.
“Groundwater is almost played out,” she said. “The water shortage can get worse and worse and worse.”
Because the discussion was so wide ranging, even some of the planning staff were confused about the planning commissioners’ intentions, Palmer said. Since the commissioners combined elements from three different alternatives (all but the one that would keep the 2014 comp plan as is), the county may have to submit the plan and accompanying maps for another public review before it goes to the county commissioners, she said.
The planning commission chose a map that they said describes current conditions on the ground, rather than projecting development patterns they’d like to see. Since the maps were created to reflect priorities in the different alternatives, it’s likely that the map they’re using will also have to change, Palmer said.
The Planning Department is consulting with the county’s attorney to be sure that they comply with all laws — in particular, since the county is under a court-ordered stipulation to review the plan with an eye toward water protections, wildfire preparedness, and promotion of agriculture, Palmer said.
The attorney will also advise them about when to conduct the final evaluation of the plan’s environmental impact, Palmer said.
The planning commission is charged with sending a recommended comp plan draft to the county commissioners. The planning commission didn’t formally vote to send the plan to the board of commissioners, but that appeared to be their intent, Palmer said.
The board of county commissioners will hold their own public hearing on the plan, but that hasn’t been scheduled yet.
The plan, draft environmental impact statement, maps and public comments are all available on the Planning Department website at https://okanogancounty.org/planning.