The first formal public hearing on major changes to how Kittitas County government manages its rural lands is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Teanaway Hall on the fairgrounds in Ellensburg.

The Kittitas County Planning Commission also will take comments on whether changes to the size of a city growth area next to Kittitas city limits follows state guidelines.

The changes have been in the works since fall 2011 in response to an adverse ruling by the state Supreme Court in late July 2011 that went mostly against Kittitas County’s rural land-use policies.

Well restrictions

A recommendation to extend Upper County’s groundwater well drilling and use restrictions to all non-city (unincorporated) areas of the county is likely to generate the most comments at Tuesday’s hearing.

The proposal would require legal proof of a water right to offset the water that is pumped from a well and doesn’t return to the aquifer.

Neil Caulkins, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, in a memo to the Planning Commission, acknowledges the proposal is profoundly unpleasant, but says county government’s position legally and scientifically offers few choices.

“It appears to be what is legally required,” Caulkins wrote, “and the potential consequences of not taking that step at this time are considerably worse.” 

Extending the restrictions will protect new well users from being cut off from their water in a drought, and help the county comply with state growth laws, Caulkins said.

County Planning Official Robert “Doc” Hansen said the proposed changes in rural, land-use lot densities, and platting and subdivision requirements will substantially improve the county’s protection of water quality and quantity.

Hansen said from a land-use planning perspective, the concerns with groundwater wells, mostly the use of permit-exempt wells, is a larger, statewide issue that needs to be resolved. The permit-exempt well issue involves a 1945 state law and other provisions that need to be addressed by the state Legislature, not only dealt with in Kittitas County, he said.

Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court ordered the county to re-examine its rules for regulating activities on rural lands in light of the requirements of the state’s Growth Management Act, and make changes where necessary.

The court questioned how three-acre minimum sized lots help protect rural character and whether smaller-acreage lots can be justified in country areas.

The ruling stems from repeated decisions since 2007 by the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings that have gone against the county’s rules for development and housing in rural areas.

The hearings board gave the county a Dec. 21 deadline to submit changes showing it is in compliance with state rules.

Proposed changes ready 

Work by county planning and legal staff and land-use                                                                                                                                         consultants have included several public open house events to collect comments, public surveys, research of past rural land-use efforts and joint study sessions with the Planning Commission and county commissioners.

County planning and legal staff recently completed work on their recommendations to the Planning Commission and county commissioners.

According to a summary document, some of the major land-use changes include:

n Designation of rural lands into one of four rural land use designations – rural residential, rural working, rural recreational and Limited Areas of More Intensive Rural Development.

n Among zoning changes is the elimination of R-3 and Ag-3 zones (that allow three-acre minimum sized lots) within rural lands except in Limited Areas of More Intensive Rural Development. 

n Proposed is the elimination of the provisions allowing performance-based cluster platting projects which staff said often were not compatible with protecting and preserving rural character. Cluster platting, in general, is a rural housing subdivision that places homes relatively close together on lots smaller than what’s allowed in the rural zone if a large section of land is set aside to be undeveloped and kept as natural, open space.  

New, proposed provisions provide criteria by which cluster platting can be approved and used for creative development without affecting rural character and preserving open space, the staff summary said. 

n Proposed conservation platting provisions provide criteria designed to be used by owners in the forest and range and agricultural lands to divide land which would provide for a variety of rural lot densities without affecting rural character, the summary said. 

n Urban-type uses have been removed or limited on resource and rural lands.

n Changes will prohibit planned unit developments in areas designated as rural working land uses and limit lot densities to the density allowed by the underlying zone.

n Increased lot densities for planned unit developments will be possible in urban growth areas next to cities as they follow transfer of development right provisions.

For more information, go to the county’s website at www.co.kittitas.wa.us/cds/compliance-2012/meetings.asp or call 962-7506.  A tentative late November date is being considered for a public hearing before county commissioners on the Planning Commission’s recommendations.

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