Although the Okanogan County Planning Commission agreed that the county’s comprehensive plan is better organized after a legal review, the commissioners expressed frustration over their lack of input on the plan, which has been fast-tracked to be approved by the end of this year.
As Okanogan County Planning Director Pete Palmer presented changes made by the outside legal team that handles planning issues for the county at their Oct. 25 meeting, some commissioners complained that they’d been left out of the process.
Moreover, several commissioners objected to the schedule, which has the county commissioners adopting the plan on Dec. 29. With that important step coming between Christmas and New Year’s, they worried that many people will be unable to participate.
The current draft, which Palmer went over at the meeting, is the one the planning commissioners have worked on over the past several years, but it’s organized differently after the legal review, Palmer said. The Okanogan County commissioners wanted the attorneys to review the plan before they looked at it, they said at their board meeting the following day.
Palmer said she was advised that she could take suggestions, but was told there is “no room for wordsmithing.” With such a tight timeline for the rest of the process – including public comment and a public hearing – “there’s no wiggle room” for further changes, Palmer said.
“If we can’t change the wording for anything that’s happening here, why are we even bothering?” Planning Commissioner Phil Dart asked.
Issues at the sometimes fractious meeting even included the seating arrangement, which – to allow for more distance between the planning commissioners because of COVID – now has some commissioners seated on the elevated dais, while the others are around a table on the floor. Commissioner George Thornton said the arrangement appeared to put some people on a pedestal, affecting the equity of their proceedings.
Basis for land-use planning
Comp plans are used as the basis for all land-use planning in the county. 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 revised plan makes a clear connection between watersheds and land use. It acknowledges that climate change is reducing the amount of water stored in the snowpack and promotes mitigation to prevent water shortages.
The county circulated the plan for public input earlier this year.
The plan recognizes distinct communities through sub-area plans. Special plans for the Methow Valley and Upper Methow Valley will be updated later, after the county appoints local advisory groups, Palmer said.
Palmer stressed the urgency of the timeline, joking that if the county doesn’t adopt a new plan by the end of the year, they could be “in jail.”
Shortly after it was adopted in 2014, the county’s comp plan was challenged in court by the Methow Valley Citizens Council and Futurewise, and, in a separate lawsuit, by the Yakama Nation. Most of the challenges dealt with what the plaintiffs said were shortcomings in addressing water quality and quantity.
An agreement worked out with the court committed the county to adopting a new plan by the end of 2018, although it didn’t require specific changes to the plan. The county missed the deadline, but it has been working on updates.
The Yakama Nation and Okanogan County have agreed on a stay that requires the county to adopt a new plan by the end of the year, Okanogan County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Gecas said.
The case brought by MVCC and Futurewise was stayed a long time ago, and although the stay expired, those groups have been watching the county’s progress, Gecas said.
Seat open on planning commission
Gina McCoy, one of two planning commissioners from the Methow Valley, submitted her resignation on Oct. 21.
In a letter to the county commissioners, McCoy thanked them for the opportunity to serve as a planning commissioner. Her goals have been to help produce effective planning documents that protect the interests of present and future county residents, guide sustainable development, and respect the county’s diverse communities, she wrote.
But the role of the planning commission is no longer collaborative, and there is no opportunity for her to represent the views of her constituents, McCoy wrote.
The county is soliciting applications to fill the seat. Applicants must live in Commissioner District No. 2, which includes the Methow Valley, Brewster and Malott.
Planning commissions advise and provide recommendations to the Planning Department.
Résumés and letters of interest should be sent to the Okanogan County Commissioners, 123 Fifth Avenue North, Room 150, Okanogan, WA 98840, by Nov. 26.
Comment on comp plan and EIS
The Okanogan County Planning Commission is holding a public hearing on the comp plan and draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on Nov. 22 at 6 p.m. in the commissioners’ hearing room. People can provide up to three minutes of verbal testimony or submit comments in writing through noon on Nov. 22.
A link to join the meeting remotely will be available on the Okanogan County commissioners’ agenda. For more information, contact Planning Director Pete Palmer at (509) 422-7218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The plan, draft EIS and other documents are at https://www.okanogancounty.org/government/planning/index.php.
Nov. 8: Public comment period on draft EIS opens
Nov. 22, 6 p.m. Public hearing before planning commission
Dec. 8: Public comment period on draft EIS closes
Dec. 22: Final EIS issued
Dec. 27, 6 p.m. Planning commission meeting to consider public comments (tentative)
Dec. 29: Adoption of plan by county commissioners