A hearing has been scheduled in Okanogan County’s lawsuit against the state Department of Ecology, which contends that the agency is asking the county to follow its “misguided interpretation” of water law, affecting the potential for development on about 750 parcels in the Methow watershed.
The county is responsible for land-use decisions, attorney Jenna Mandell-Rice said in the county’s argument for summary judgment filed in Okanogan County Superior Court on June 4.
The county pointed to interim controls it has implemented in the past several years to comply with court decisions and water law. These include a moratorium on new subdivisions in the Methow watershed and on building permits on some 200 existing parcels in the watershed.
The county preserved one exception that it calls the “Two-lot Subdivision Exception,” which allows property owners to divide a lot with an existing house and well, to create one new lot for one additional house supplied by its own well.
This exception is the primary issue in the case, the county said. “The County’s Two-lot Subdivision Exception authorizes a land division which will support only one new home; thus, the resulting use is a single domestic use that qualifies for the single-domestic use reservation under the Methow Rule,” the county said.
Ecology is wrong to count the existing house as part of the development proposal and therefore consider it “group” use. The existing house already has a water supply, meaning that Ecology wouldn’t be asked to approve water use for that home along with the new house, Mandell-Rice said.
The county also argues that Ecology doesn’t have legal authority over the county’s land-use decisions. Moreover, the appeal period on these decisions has closed and Ecology hasn’t challenged the county’s evaluations of water adequacy for building permits, Mandell-Rice said.
The 1976 Methow Rule sets aside a certain amount of water in the Methow and establishes a priority of uses for that water, with individual houses (single-domestic) at the top of the list, even before water for fish in rivers (instream flows). Municipal and group-domestic uses are further down on the list.
Ecology: county’s approach unlawful
Ecology denied the county’s claims in a response filed in April. The agency also filed for summary judgement in June, asking the court to find that the county’s policies are unlawful.
Dividing a parcel of land to create an additional parcel for a home that would rely on water allocated for domestic use by the Methow Rule is not allowed and constitutes group use, Ecology said.
Issuing building permits for homes in subdivisions approved after the state Supreme Court’s 2002 Campbell & Gwinn case is also unlawful, Ecology said.
If the court allows the county’s approach, hundreds of new wells could be drilled, to the detriment of the Methow River and its tributaries, attorney Alan Reichman with the state Attorney General’s office argued for Ecology.
In that ruling, the court found that a proposed subdivision with 20 homes constituted group use and required a water right. Ecology asserts that any parcel created through subdivisions after that ruling would result in group water use.
A hearing has been scheduled in the case in Okanogan County Superior Court on July 20 at 1:30 p.m.