Artist's rendering of what a charging station pavilion could look like, courtesy of ECOtality/Blink Network of charging stations.

Artist's rendering of what a charging station pavilion could look like, courtesy of ECOtality/Blink Network of charging stations.

When it comes to making charging infrastructure for electric vehicles easy to install, Douglas County is way ahead of the curve. While much of the nation struggles with how to change and update existing land use, zoning, permitting and other codes for the easy installation of the charging stations these next generation vehicles need, Douglas County has taken a different approach and found a much simpler way to do it—in a fashion that fits in well with Eastern Washington’s cultural landscape.

Douglas County’s work has also provided other counties and cities in the area with a good template to start from, greatly reducing the time, energy and resources needed to do the same thing.

“Essentially the issue of where to put in charging stations should be a pretty simple exercise,” said Mark Kulaas, Land Services Director for Douglas County, in an interview with Plugin Center. “People are either going to have them in their homes and businesses or they’re not, and the city and county shouldn’t be passing judgement on that.”

After passage of a 2009 state law that required most of Washington’s cities and counties to develop ordinances allowing electric vehicle infrastructure to be installed, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) was directed to draft some model ordinances that would help local governments meet those requirements. Ron Johnston-Rodriguez, Economic Development Director for the Port of Chelan County and the Director of the Plugin Center, was on the advisory committee that helped to draft these model ordinances. For everything from land use considerations, to permitting processes, to signage suggestions, the PSRC recommendations were very detailed. The 46 page model ordinance guidebook can be found at the PSRC website.

“When that legislation was passed we just kind of followed the process along that was being headed up by the Puget Sound Regional Council and kept contact with Ron [Johnston-Rodriguez] through the process,” said Kulaas, who also serves on the City Council in Wenatchee. “After the model ordinances came out we knew it needed to be done to meet state requirements and the staff here was very interested in making it as painless as possible. We knew that the Port of Chelan was really taking a lead on this, and we knew that our region was ahead of the curve. So if a business or organization was looking for opportunities to install charging stations we wanted to be able to respond right away, instead of taking a couple of months to push through new ordinances under pressure.”

Kulaas says Douglas County’s overarching philosophy in the process was to “stay out of the way” and says they wanted to find ways to distill the model ordinance guidance down from its very detailed state to something simple. “For us here in Eastern Washington we didn’t need to go through the entire scope that was addressed in there,” he said. “We pretty much wanted to stick to land use issues and some of the model ordinances stuff extended beyond land use issues.” As an example of some of the detail they wanted to cut out, Kulaas pointed to the model ordinances suggestions for station signage. “If I was a business and I had a charging station, I’m going to be putting up a sign,” he said. “I don’t need the government telling me to put up a sign and how to do it.”

In the end, Douglas County took approximately seven pages of guidance and distilled it down into one simplified page. “We believed that if there are already codes that govern a particular activity, why create more?,” said Kulaas. “The Department of Labor and Industries already permits electrical systems, we don’t. The Public Utility Districts provide power under their guidelines, we don’t. The Americans with Disabilities Act applies regardless of what the activity is, so we didn’t feel it was necessary to make regulations more complex than they already are. Essentially our philosophy is ‘less is better.’”

Kulaas said that Douglas County was able to do the work between their required work programs and that it wasn’t that much of a time burden, estimating that it took about 30 total hours of staff time with basic research taking 20 hours and the rest devoted to herding it through the hearing process. From start to finish, the whole process including adoption by the county commissioners took about two months. “The process was made a little quicker because we had requested and received approval from the state Department of Commerce to use what’s called ‘expedited review’ through the Growth Management Act—and that cut two months off right there,” said Kulaas, adding that the state legislature was wise enough to also exempt the regulations from the state Environmental Policy Act so there was no environmental analysis to conduct—saving a large chunk of time.

The county plans on taking a look at the ordinances a couple of years down the road and if something needs modification they have no problem with revising it at that point. “Somebody has to be first, and frankly, on a number of other technology issues Douglas County has been a leader—we just want to be in a position that as individuals and business make the decision to adopt this new technology we’re ready for it,” said Kulaas.

“Now it’s our job to stay out of the way as projects start coming in,” he said. “Our big thrust was that we didn’t want to have a special permit for somebody putting in a charging station. If you need a building permit, great, you need a building permit, but if you’re not doing any construction then you need to get permits from whoever you need to get permits from—Labor and Industry and approval from the Public Utility District for example—and then go on your way. We didn’t add any permits or approvals that wouldn’t normally exist for electric vehicle infrastructure.

Kulaas said his department would be happy to share their research and process with other local governments in the region, saying that if other cities or counties in the area used the materials they’ve adopted, they would cut out a fair amount of analysis time and drafting.

Resources:

  1. Douglas County Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Ordinances
  2. Puget Sound Regional Council Model Ordinances

Douglas County Land Services Contact Information:

140 East 19th Street NW, Suite A
East Wenatchee, WA 98802
509-884-7173
http://www.douglascountywa.net/departments/tls/land/default.asp

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