Douglas County moves to allow some home construction during COVID-19 shutdown

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EAST WENATCHEE — Douglas County commissioners signed off Wednesday on a proclamation to let new home construction go forward during the COVID-19 public health emergency, saying some new home building meets “essential” definitions under Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.

The proclamation applies only to new construction built under an existing purchase and sale agreement, with building permits already awarded prior to March 27. If both conditions are met, the county’s planning department would issue a letter of authorization.

It was the board’s second attempt at such a proclamation. The first, signed Tuesday and superceded by the new document, did not include language about building permits or department authorization.

Inslee’s March 23 emergency order, aimed at enforcing social separation to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, deemed most commercial construction “nonessential.” That meant a halt to almost all building projects in the state, including homes and apartments.

But the governor issued further guidance March 27 allowing real estate and mortgage transactions to go forward. The Douglas County proclamation cites this as a loophole, saying “current, pre-existing home sales may proceed to build completion as an essential activity” under Inslee’s guidelines.

Board of Commissioners chairman Dan Sutton did not respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday evening. Mark Botello, the county’s new Land Services director, could not be reached for comment on how many new homes the proclamation might apply to.

NCWLIFE also sought comment from Douglas County Prosecutor Gordon Edgar, whose civil deputy signed off on the measure, but did not receive a return call Wednesday. The proclamation did not appear on the commissioners’ published agenda for the week.

Commissioners Sutton, Marc Straub and Kyle Steinburg have sought leniency for new development since the first week of Inslee’s order. The board wrote to the governor’s office March 30, citing the need for affordable housing in the Wenatchee Valley. “The Board of Commissioners has received assurance from the development community of their ability to maintain safe social distancing practices whilst maintaining the continuity of construction services,” they wrote.

The new proclamation requires construction crews to “observe social distancing guidelines and applicable health and worker protection measures” should building resume. In a letter to commissioners, Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator Barry Kling said those steps “will largely mitigate any additional COVID-19 exposures that might occur in projects that would have otherwise been suspended.”

Contacted Wednesday before the Douglas County proclamation became public, Mike Faulk, Inslee’s deputy communications director, said the governor’s office “began roundtable conversations with construction workers and contractors to provide clarity on the safety and health expectations for essential projects still underway.

“Ultimately, our goal is to prepare an appropriate return-to-work strategy for the rest of the industry,” Faulk said in an email. “That strategy will be informed by workers, contractors, health and safety experts, and local government, for how construction can safely resume. The group will meet twice per week. There is currently no timeline for when non-essential construction would restart.”

Faulk didn’t reply when emailed a copy of the proclamation and asked for comment later in the day.