Comments being taken on proposal to restrict new septic systems in flood plain
Methow Valley, WA - More than a dozen Methow Valley residents attended a county Health District board meeting last Tuesday (Nov. 19) in Okanogan to express support for regulations prohibiting new septic systems in 100-year flood plain areas.
Because the health board lacked a quorum (three of the five voting memebers are required), a vote on the proposed regulation restricting new septic systems within the 100-year flood plain was postponed until the next meeting on Dec. 10. Public comment on the proposal will continue to be taken until that meeting.
Methow Valley residents who spoke at the meeting all supported new language contained in revisions to the county’s On-site Sewage Disposal Regulation. The revised regulation states that "no new construction of on-site sewage systems will be allowed within the boundaries of the 100-year flood plain except for existing systems serving residential structures that have failed and need to be repaired."
John Sunderland, a Mazama resident, urged the board to adopt the septic prohibition to reduce the risk of septic systems being damaged during floods, and consequently contaminating rivers. "I think it’s a bad idea…to subject the public to the possibility of contaminated water," Sunderland said.
He noted that the proposal has raised concerns among some realtors who say that property values will diminish if people who own land in the 100-year flood plain are prohibited from developing their property as a result of the new rule. However, Sunderland said, county planning and zoning codes for the upper Methow Valley have prohibited most residential construction in the 100-year flood plain for many years.
"Most of the land acquired in the flood plain was acquired with the understanding that it was not buildable," Sunderland said. Allowing residential construction within the 100-year flood plain "would be giving…a windfall" to property owners who bought with this understanding, Sunder-land said.
Dave Hilton, county environmental health director, said he has received 20 to 30 written comments, most of them from Methow Valley residents, regarding the proposed regulation since it was first introduced in October. He said comments were running about four to one in favor of the septic restriction.
Marlene Rawley, an Okanogan realtor, was the sole speaker at the meeting against the revision to the health code. "I would object to applying the standards of Mazama to the rest of the county," Rawley said. "The economic impact is unnecessary to the rest of the county."
Michael Pritchard, who operates a river rafting company in the Methow Valley, said he has "observed a lot of movement of river channels in the upper valley" during his nearly 20 years of guiding river trips. Flood waters "can go wherever they want," he said. "I think it’s unwise to place septic systems anywhere in the flood plain. It’s a disservice to people downstream," Pritchard said.
Kathleen Hirschstein, a Libby Creek resident, said septic systems in the 100-year flood plain should be prohibited to "protect people…whether they are being blinded by their immediate needs to build a house in a particular spot, or by financial gain" from selling property.
Rawley said people in other parts of the county, where water tables and soil conditions are different, might not want the same protections. "If I lived in the Methow I might feel the same. We acknowledge that you have some different conditions," Rawley said. "I feel it’s unfair for a group of people to enforce their ideas on others….We need to be careful about making rules to protect others. There are 50,000 square miles in this county, and I know they’re not all the same."
County Commissioner Dave Schulz of Twisp, a member of the Health District board, commended residents for wanting to protect water quality in the Methow Valley. "We used to drink right out of the crick at school," Schulz recalled. But he said he was concerned that some residents might have bought property many years ago with plans to build on it, and could feel the county is taking away that privilege.
Winthrop resident Roxie Miller, a director of the Chewuch Ditch, spoke in favor of the regulation, saying clean water is important for the county’s agricultural uses as well as residential uses.
The revisions to the county’s sewage disposal regulations are intended to make health regulations consistent with county planning regulations, said Hilton. Current health regulations don’t contain language prohibiting on-site sewage systems in 100-year flood plains. However, county zoning codes for the Methow Review District, which encompasses most of the valley, state that no homes or sewage disposal facilities are allowed within the 100-year-flood plain.
In the Okanogan River basin, homes are currently allowed to be constructed within the 100-year flood plain, "if certain construction standards are met," according to county planning director Don Skillingstad. Those standards include a requirement that the lowest habitable floor of the dwelling be one foot above flood elevation, as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In the Methow Valley, homes could be also built in the 100-year flood plain according to those specific construction standards, but only in cases where an entire parcel of property lies within the flood plain and there is no portion outside the flood plain on which to build. Septic permits would no longer be issued for homes in the 100-year flood plain anywhere in the county under he new health district regulation.
If the regulation is approved, property owners would have five years from its effective date to subdivide and develop land under former regulations, Hilton said.
Further comment may be directed to Hilton by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to P.O. Box 231, Okanogan, WA 98840.
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