The moratorium on new building permits for some 235 lots in the Methow watershed will stay in place for now, but the Okanogan County commissioners have vowed to find mitigations that will allow property owners to build. Using cisterns instead of a well — with water brought in from outside the Methow basin — appears to be the quickest solution, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said after taking public comment on the moratorium on Monday (Oct. 11).
“It is with great angst — and not really liking it — that I would move to continue the ordinance as it stands,” Hover said. Keeping the ban in place will allow the county to use the best-available science to find an approach consistent with water laws and rules that allows these people to build, Hover said.
Three dozen people attended the hearing and 10 testified. In addition, 50 submitted written comment before the hearing, Okanogan County Planning Director Pete Palmer said.
Many of those who spoke are affected by the ban. They described substantial investments and their anguish over not being able to fulfill their dreams of living in the Methow, farming, and being responsible stewards of their land. One said the situation had “brought him to his knees financially.”
Only two speakers advocated keeping the moratorium in place, although they urged the commissioners to address the fact that the county has contributed to the problem by allowing subdivisions and issuing other permits for infrastructure even while building permits are on hold.
Many criticized the county for not ensuring that people understand what they can and cannot do with their property. “I think the county should send letters to notify people so we’re not all in shock when we apply for a building permit,” said a woman who’s awaiting permission to build on her land.
Most speakers said they supported protecting water resources and controlling new development to preserve the valley’s rural, agricultural character. But imposing a moratorium retroactively — on lots created over the past two decades through subdivision — penalizes individual property owners for miscommunication between the county and the state, one speaker said.
The Methow Valley Citizens Council, which has repeatedly put the county on notice that it can’t allow these parcels to use wells for water, proposed a plan to resolve the issue by setting up a water bank that could mitigate for water use.
In a discussion after the public comment, Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch pointed to the deference typically given to the vesting doctrine — the notion that a land-use application will be considered under the statutes in effect at the time of the application. People continue to make investments in their property, thinking they’re vested, and the county has contributed to this impression by issuing septic permits, approving site analyses, and certifying water adequacy, he said.
The county bears some responsibility for the dilemma because county departments have been out of sync, Palmer said. For example, Public Health has issued septic permits, despite a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling and the Methow Rule (which governs usage in the watershed), which both say these particular properties don’t have a legal right to use wells for household water.
The current stalemate stems from state laws; court rulings; and the Methow Rule. The state allows people to use up to 5,000 gallons per day from a well for a single household, livestock and a garden.
The Methow Rule sets aside a certain amount of water from the Methow River for domestic use, divided among seven reaches. It’s unusual in the state because it mentions only single-domestic use. Most watersheds that set aside water also allow some of it to be used for group-domestic use, such as a small residential development. But in the Methow, single homes get priority, followed by water for rivers and fish, then for towns. There is no reserve for municipal or group uses.
The 235 lots are affected by a 2002 ruling by the state Supreme Court, which found that a developer couldn’t use single-domestic wells to provide water for multiple lots. That arrangement requires a group water system, the justices said.
At the hearing Okanogan County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Gecas warned that lifting the ban on building permits could subject the county to lawsuits from a special-interest group or the Washington Department of Ecology. The county is hoping to get clarification about whether construction on these 235 properties is permissible as part of a lawsuit the county filed against Ecology.
Although the commissioners have committed to finding a way to let these people build homes, doing so requires several changes. Hover noted that the county doesn’t currently have an ordinance addressing the use of cisterns, for example.
Any water-storage project would take considerable investment and it could be years before it’s created, the commissioners said.
The commissioners are eager to resolve the situation for these 235 parcels, but a separate moratorium on new subdivisions will stay in place as the county studies ways to address the bigger issue of growth in the Methow Valley — to preserve scarce water resources and the rural, agricultural character, Hover said.