Okanogan County has a new comprehensive plan for the first time in six years. The county commissioners unanimously adopted the revised 61-page plan on Dec. 29 after a wide-ranging discussion and minor changes regarding water rights. The comp plan is a philosophical document that serves as the basis for other county plans.
“Okanogan County is vast and beautiful,” the plan says in its vision statement. This “diverse and rugged natural environment has fostered a range of historic uses and distinct communities” and the county “recognizes that wise stewardship of natural resources is fundamental to our rural economy.”
The plan is a revision of the county’s 2014 plan, which was the first update the county had made since adopting its first plan in 1964. But the 2014 plan was challenged in court almost immediately, primarily over water and wildfire protections, by the Methow Valley Citizens Council and Futurewise, and later, by the Yakama Nation.
During their discussion before adopting the plan, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover made a point of going through the plan to ensure that it addressed water resources and wildfire, the central issues in the lawsuits. The plan references county documents that protect shorelines and the county’s watersheds, he said.
The new comp plan addresses water resources more explicitly than the 2014 plan. It states that people need to have legally available water for development and must follow state rules that guarantee sufficient water in rivers to support fish, Hover said in the discussion.
Among the plan’s guiding principles is the wise and efficient use of water, to protect senior water rights and ecosystems and to allow for sustainable development.
The plan specifically protects aquifers and water supplies for existing and future uses. It supports water banks and other mitigation for water use.
The plan also commits the county to compiling more data about water use, including well-tracking software, as the basis for future land-use decisions.
The plan references the county’s multi-hazard mitigation plan, which establishes wildfire protections. The ability for local areas and communities to create their own subarea plans will help with preparedness for wildfire and other emergencies, County Commissioner Chris Branch said during the discussion.
The plan promotes the use of best practices to make structures resistant to fires and encourages clustering to reduce development in the wildland-urban interface. It commits to revisiting road standards to require adequate ingress and egress for residents and emergency vehicles.
It also supports programs such as Firewise, which emphasizes defensible space around a home and the use of fire-resistant building materials.
The plan allows committees of local residents to create subarea plans (called “More Completely Planned Areas”) that reflect local priorities. The committees can include renters as well as property owners, but would be led by property owners.
The plan allows for greater density in cities and towns, and includes ways for those areas to expand to accommodate more residents. These areas could help address the county’s need for affordable housing, Hover said.
Okanogan County Planning Director Pete Palmer said she’d had to start almost from scratch on the plan when she joined the county a year and a half ago. The draft she inherited was only about 19 pages and often vague, and many required sections were omitted, Palmer told the commissioners.
Next up: zoning code
Now that the plan has been approved, the commissioners want to start work on the zoning code, which will put the concepts from the comp plan into effect on the parcel level, and to activate subarea planning committees, Hover said. Existing subarea plans for the Methow Valley and Upper Methow Valley were adopted along with the comp plan but are due for updates.
The goals and objectives that grew out of the vision statement in the plan are intentionally general so they remain flexible, to allow desirable growth and projects but keep out undesirable ones, Branch said.
Hover made sure that the plan allows for agritourism, such as farm stays, which could help create a stable economy for farmers and ranchers, he said.
The plan also includes transportation and recreation needs for future development. It looks to rural areas to support agriculture and forestry.
The plan specifically states that the county will consult with the Yakama Nation and the Colville Tribes regarding their formal planning documents, recognized interests, and “usual and accustomed” areas in the county.
The commissioners reminded each other and their constituents that the comp plan is a “living document” that can be revised as needed.
County Commissioner Jim DeTro, who was on the board when it adopted the 2014 plan, said it had been “a long road” and hoped that the new plan will address the issues raised in court.
When the county starts to work on the zoning code, the commissioners and Palmer agreed to solicit input from organizations with specific needs and concerns.