Court ruling stops new residential lots in valley
Property owners in the Methow Valley can apply for building permits again, now that the Okanogan County commissioners have repealed the moratorium put in place almost a year ago while they sought a court ruling over water availability in a case against the state Department of Ecology.
But there can be no new residential lots created by subdivision unless the house gets water from a source other than the Methow River. Development on existing lots can proceed, as long as there’s enough water left in the reserve set aside from the river. A separate moratorium that stopped subdivisions will be allowed to expire on Jan. 26. The commissioners took action on the moratoriums on Jan. 10.
The building-permit moratorium affected about 230 parcels with wells that would have drawn on the Methow River. The commissioners adopted the moratorium to avoid entangling property owners and the county in litigation.
The ruling in Okanogan County Superior Court clears up two years of uncertainty over residential development in the Methow Valley. The appeal period has expired without an appeal by Ecology, Okanogan County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney David Gecas said.
Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Henry Rawson issued two rulings in the complex case. In August, Rawson ruled that the county can’t allow people with an existing house and well to create a new lot for one more house with its own well. Rawson said that would amount to a group-well system, which is prohibited by the 1976 Methow Rule, which governs water use in the Methow basin.
In November, Rawson clarified that ruling and addressed a second issue in the case. He said that people who own lots created by subdivision after March 2002 have the right to move ahead with building and to use a well that draws from the Methow River to supply their house. The county had argued that no one had challenged building permits and water adequacy for many of these lots, meaning the owners had a vested right to build.
But Rawson put limits on development. Only lots created before the county’s building-permit moratorium went into effect on Jan. 26, 2021, can use water from the Methow River for a house. Any subdivisions done since then would be considered group use, Rawson said.
The county is still researching ways to allow new development on lots where people can’t use water from the Methow River. Options include mitigation such as water storage or banking, obtaining a water right, or a system for bringing in water from outside the watershed, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said.
The Methow Rule sets aside water for single-domestic wells to supply a house and livestock before any other water use. Water for the towns and irrigation get lower priority, and group-domestic isn’t on the list at all.
The March 2002 date comes from a state Supreme Court ruling that found that a proposed subdivision with 20 homes constituted group use and required a special water right.
Rawson’s decision makes the subdivision situation “black and white,” Hover said at their meeting. People with future building plans for a new lot will have to obtain a water right or prove some mitigation for their water use, he said.
Since the appeal period was up, Hover said he wanted to repeal the ban on building permits right away, rather than wait another month for it to expire. As the commissioner representing the Methow Valley, Hover has been pressured by people who’ve made considerable investments in infrastructure on their post-2002 lots and are eager to build.
Commissioner Jim DeTro voted with Hover to repeal the moratorium on building permits. Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch voted against the repeal, but not because he wanted the ban to remain in place, he said. Branch said he thought it would be worth using the remaining month to establish a clear process for handling applications for water and building permits by multiple county departments. All three commissioners agreed to let the subdivision ban expire.
Permit applications filed
Some people who already have building plans jumped on the chance to apply for a building permit. Two days after the repeal, Okanogan County Building Official Dan Higbee got two applications for building permits and is expecting more in the near future.
Higbee said he wished people would turn in their applications now, while things are slow, rather than waiting until they’re ready to build in the spring.
Before he can issue a building permit, Higbee must ensure that Okanogan County Public Health has signed off on water adequacy, and that the county Planning Department has approved the site plan for setbacks and water availability (see box on this page).
Applicants for building permits aren’t currently required to get all these approvals in any particular order, but the best way is to start with Planning, Higbee said. If people don’t have a suitable building site or don’t have legal water, there’s no reason to try for a building permit, he said.
Unless there are unusual circumstances, the typical turnaround time for a building permit is two weeks to a month. Permits are valid for 18 months and can be extended for up to three years.
Database tracks use
The county has a new database that tracks water use in all watersheds, including the seven reaches in the Methow. The database debits all existing homes from the total water reserve, and all new homes will be subtracted once the building permit is issued, Hover told the Methow Valley News.
The Methow Rule created seven reaches, from Early Winters to the Lower Methow, and allocated 2 acre feet per second (cfs) to each one. One cfs is almost 449 gallons per minute.
Studies done over the past decade have found that most reaches have plenty of water, but others, like the Lower Methow, would run out of water if every existing lot were developed.
Based on a study done in 2011, the county is subtracting 710 gallons per day for residential use in the Methow based on the highest daily use in July, Hover said.
The database subtracts 314 gallons per day for the Okanogan watershed, because that watershed is governed by a different rule that requires they use the average daily withdrawals, Hover said.
The county will issue monthly reports that show how much water is being used in each subbasin, Hover said.