Winthrop Town Hall. Photo by Robin Doggett

Winthrop Town Hall. Photo by Robin Doggett

By Laurelle Walsh

Temperatures rose at the last Winthrop Town Council meeting (Aug. 7) when Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe proprietor Doug Mohre accused council member Rick Northcott and building official Dave Sandoz of “abuse of power.”

Mohre rose to speak during the public comment period, opening with the complaint that downtown merchants undergo unreasonable scrutiny due to the town’s Westernization rules.

“Our toes are held to the fire because of the Westernization ordinance,” Mohre said. “I can’t pound a nail without Dave [Sandoz] coming over.”

Mohre went on to say that a stop-work order on the Pony Expresso building, formerly owned by Northcott, made him wonder if Northcott’s own residence on Highway 20 in Winthrop had gone through proper permitting since remodeling began in 2004. After reviewing the building permit history for that address, Mohre alleged Northcott had built “a whole entire house,” whereas a permit was issued for a two-car garage.

“I’m appalled,” said Mohre. “This individual sits on the council. He’s a local builder. It’s an abuse of power.”

Northcott’s company, Rick Northcott Construction, has constructed numerous projects in the Methow Valley, including Ace Hardware and Red Apple Market in Winthrop, as well as many others in the region.

“I can’t imagine the building inspector wouldn’t know what was going on,” Mohre continued. “It looks like people can build and get approval after the fact.”

Mohre also alleged that Northcott had been approved for a nightly rental license at the same address. “I don’t understand how town could approve a nightly rental without it being inspected,” he said.

Mayor Dave Acheson assured Mohre that the town would “inspect and make sure the building is up to code before we approve a nightly rental.”

Building official Sandoz said, “It’s well established how we can handle situations where people miss inspections. There are cases where we can allow changes to be made after the building permit is issued.”

“In this case we agreed that I would come and inspect the building. I will look at the floor plan, code compliance and life-safety issues and look at where changes need to be made,” Sandoz went on. “It’s my judgment. If walls need to be pulled apart and looked at, I will do that.”

In a follow-up interview Sandoz said he had not yet seen the scope of Northcott’s project, but an overnight rental license application around three weeks prior triggered the building official to look at the address’s building history.

“Rick was permitted to build a garage with storage above,” Sandoz said. “If there has been a change in use from storage to living space it will require an additional fee for the increased value of the space. It may also require a post-inspection list of corrections and additions needed to comply with code.”

“It is fairly common practice to issue new building permits as needs change,” Sandoz added. “We deal with changes all the time.”

Regarding Mohre’s sense that he and other downtown merchants are held to “incredible” standards, Sandoz said Mohre has not done any building or taken out any building permits during his tenure. (Sandoz became Winthrop’s first full-time building official in 2007.) Sandoz was also “not aware of any changes made to Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe that triggered Westernization,” he said.

For Northcott’s part, “I’ve had permits for everything. The only thing I didn’t do was apply for a separate building permit for finished space,” he said in an interview.

“I consider Doug an upstanding community member who has done a lot of good things for the town,” Northcott said. “I am surprised that it all came about the way it has. It has become quite personal.”

Rick Northcott is finishing up his second term on the Winthrop Town Council. “At this point I am still running for re-election,” he said.