Wednesday, August 28, 2013/lk
OKANOGAN Some conservationists are suing Okanogan County in an attempt to prevent the majority of county roads from being opened to all-terrain vehicles.
The Methow Valley Citizens Council and Conservation Northwest are asking Okanogan County Superior Court to issue an injunction preventing the ordinances from being implemented, along with a declaration that the ordinances violate the Revised Code of Washington dealing with all-terrain vehicle use, as well as the state’s Environmental Policy Act.
The groups “seek to prevent the increased damage that is likely to result from the illegal ORV (off-road vehicle) and all-terrain vehicle access to sensitive fish and wildlife habitat, as well as other environmental harm, that these ordinances will allow and encourage,” according to the lawsuit documents filed Aug. 14.
Being an active litigation issue, county officials declined to comment. However, when the most recent ordinance was passed July 29, Commissioner Jim DeTro said it wasn’t the commission’s job to interpret state law.
Conservation Northwest claimed that it, and its members, “will be specifically and perceptibly harmed” by the ordinances.
“In opening up roads to (ATV) traffic without environmental review and in excess of that permitted by law, Okanogan County substantially increases the potential for illegal and damaging use by broadening the scope and manner that (ATVs) can access sensitive wildlife habitat across large and remote areas of Okanogan County,” the lawsuit said.
The Methow Valley Citizens Council, which was created in 1977 to “promote and maintain and natural, rural, and agricultural character of the Methow Valley,” made a similar claim.
“Implementation of the ordinances in question would result in a dramatic increase in ATV traffic in the Methow Valley and elsewhere in Okanogan County, much of which would be contrary to state law,” the council said. “This will channel extensive (ATV) use to sensitive wildlife habitat, cause air and water pollution, increase noise levels, and endanger MVCC members traveling on county roads.”
The group also cited concerns about ATVs interfering quieter recreational activities, such as photographing wildlife and fishing.
The July 25 ordinance opened an additional 300 miles of county roads, with varying speed limits, to all-terrain vehicle use, making the total about 635 miles.
The North Central ATV Club made the proposal, and comments in favor and against the ordinance were about equally matched during the public hearing.
Club President Spencer King said the organization rushed to get the proposal in before the new state law took effect July 28, which would limit any roads opened from that point on to 35 mph or less.
The lawsuit claims the roads opened July 25 “are not direct connections from a city with a population of less than (3,000) persons and an off-road vehicle recreation facility, as required by state law in effect at the time the ordinance was adopted.”
Attempting to grandfather in roads with higher speed limits, according to the lawsuit, violates a section of the new law, which says: “A person may not operate a wheeled all-terrain vehicle on a public roadway within the boundaries of a county, not including non-highway roads and trails, with a population of 15,000 or more unless the county by ordinance has approved the operation of wheeled all-terrain vehicles on county roadways, not including non-highway roads and trails.”
In addition, the lawsuit says the county failed to conduct an environmental review before approving the ordinance.
In the July 29 ordinance, which is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 29, commissioners opened the remaining miles of county roads under 35 mph. The problem, according to Conservation Northwest and the Citizens Council, is the county didn’t consider whether newly opened roads would run into unopened sections of roads over 35 mph or roads within other jurisdictions.
The ordinance “creates additional confusion for operators of wheeled all-terrain vehicles, encourages law violations, and increases the difficulty of enforcing the law,” the lawsuit says.
As of Monday afternoon, Conservation Northwest Executive Director Mitch Friedman said a court date had not been scheduled.
Conservation Northwest was among the special-interest groups involved in creating House Bill 1632, which passed both houses of the Legislature and was signed into law July 3.
The organization and county commissioners butted heads in March, when the bill was presumed dead after being sent back to the House Rules Committee for a second reading. Friedman said in a March 20 Chronicle story the bill would have passed had commissioners been willing to work with Methow Valley residents on some special provisions.
Commissioners countered that they were approached for an “11th-hour agreement behind closed doors” and wouldn’t negotiate in such a manner.