By Don Nelson
Faced with choosing between the letter and the spirit of the law, the Winthrop Town Council opted for the latter at last week’s meeting when it declined to fine Abbycreek Inn for violating the town’s Westernization code.
The town’s Westernization Architectural Committee (WAC) had recommended that the town assess a civil penalty of $1,250 against the motel’s new owners, Josh and Kristin Buehler, for noncompliance with the Westernization code. The recommended fine was the maximum that could be assessed for the five days that the Buehlers were found to be in noncompliance.
The Buehlers’ sign problems began when they renamed the former Best Western Cascade Inn on Highway 20, calling it Alderbrook Inn. They installed a new sign, which conformed with Westernization regulations, over the old one.
However, the Buehlers soon heard from the owners of Alderbrook Resort & Spa, who said the Winthrop innkeepers were violating the Hood Canal resort’s trademark.
The Buehlers re-registered the Winthrop hotel as Abbycreek Inn, and changed the business’s website and Internet advertising to reflect the new name.
They also took down a portion of the Alderbrook sign, leaving the old Cascade Inn sign exposed – which created the Westernization violation.
To avoid violation, “all old signage would have had to come down, and they should have waited for Westernization approval before putting up the new sign,” WAC administrator Cindy Hicks said earlier. “There is no provision in the ordinance for temporary signage at this time.”
But the Buehlers were snared in a Catch 22: they hurried to replace the offending signage, which they did with a new Abbycreek Inn sign that was installed over the old Cascade Inn sign. But in doing so, they violated another WAC requirement that any new sign requires prior approval.
In other words, they incurred another infraction by taking care of the previous one.
The Town Council, while acknowledging the WAC’s role and authority, found the fine excessive, given that the Buehlers worked as quickly as possible to resolve the problems and installed a new sign by March 19 – and that a WAC meeting where the Abbycreek Inn sign might have been approved was scheduled for March 25.
At last week’s meeting, council member Gaile Bryant-Cannon said she was torn by the WAC’s recommendation because she believes the code should be enforced. “But this is a young couple coming in and taking on a horrendous project,” she said. “They had no intention of violating the code.”
Council member Rick Northcott echoed support for the WAC but also said he didn’t think a fine was necessary in this instance. “They [the Buehlers] were doing the best they could to get a new sign up,” he said. “They did what they were supposed to do in a timely fashion.”
Council member Vern Herrst, a former member of the WAC, said the council needed to stand behind the WAC and demonstrate support for its work, even if it meant assessing a minimal, token fine. Not assessing a penalty, Herrst said, could be seen as “a slap in the face to the WAC.”
Council member Mike Strulic said he found the recommended fine “a little ridiculous” because the Buehlers were not trying to evade the law. “I feel like we should give them a pass,” he said. “If it hurts WAC’s feelings, I’m sorry.”
Council member Jessica Sheehan said she didn’t think the Buehlers should be given a complete pass on the violations.
Josh Buehler told the council that “we got the new sign up as soon as we could.” Bryant-Cannon agreed that the Buehlers had “shown every possible intention to do the right thing.”
Mayor Sue Langdalen reiterated support for the WAC, but called the proposed assessment “way too high.”
Northcott moved that the town not assess a penalty, and the motion passed 3-2 with Northcott, Herrst and Strulic voting “yes” and Bryant-Cannon and Sheehan voting no.
After the meeting, Josh Buehler said that he and his wife were relieved. “We want it [the new sign] back up,” he said. “We were embarrassed to not have a sign.”
In other business, the council:
• Approved a $35,000 contract with Ice & Energy Solutions of North Vancouver, B.C., to design specifications and oversee construction of the new concrete slab and refrigeration system planned for the Winthrop Ice & Sports Rink. The project is being funded by a state grant that will be matched by local cash and in-kind donations.
• Approved a two-year operational agreement with the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, which operates the Winthrop Visitor Information Center. The agreement calls for the town to pay the chamber $12,000 a year from lodging tax revenues that are designated to support tourism.
• Learned that the town sold one former Marshal’s Office vehicle, a Ford Explorer that was designated as surplus, but received no bids on another police vehicle, a Dodge Durango.