By Don Nelson

The “S” word — solar — was off limits, but served as something of a backdrop when members of the Winthrop Town Council and the town’s Westernization Design Review Board (WDRB) met in an informal workshop last week to discuss Westernization issues.

A recent proposal to amend the town’s Westernization ordinance to allow solar panels in the W-3 zone, generally south of the Methow River Bridge along Highway 20, led to last week’s meeting. Currently, the ordinance would allow such an array if it were not visible from Highway 20, but prohibits solar installations if they could be viewed from other public rights-of-way.

The Westernization code was thoroughly revamped and updated over a two-year period by volunteer members of the review board, and was adopted by the Town Council in May 2017. That revised ordinance includes rules for solar displays in Westernization zones.

The ordinance amendment proposal has sparked support from advocates of solar power as a renewable energy source, while at the same time generating resistance from the WDRB and Westernization supporters. The WDRB had unanimously voted to oppose the proposed ordinance amendment.

The proposal drew a lot of public testimony at recent council meetings. But before the council can formally consider it, the proposal must have a hearing before the Winthrop Planning Commission on April 10. The commission will then make its own recommendation to the council.

Out of the public discussions came an agreement for the council and WDRB to meet. No public testimony was taken at last weeks’ meeting, and Mayor Sally Ranzau ruled out discussion of the solar proposal because it is now in the hands of the Planning Commission. “We can talk about everything else tonight,” she said.

WDRB member Steve Oulman, the revised ordinance’s chief writer, told the council that the intent of the updated ordinance was to “make it more transparent, streamlined and fair.” He pointed out that the Westernization program assumes that there is a substantial community interest in maintaining authenticity of the Western experience in Winthrop.

“It’s a living document, not written in stone,” Oulman said. He noted that Westernization is not the same as historic preservation. “If it was, it would look different,” he said. “It [the ordinance] is about economic development for the town.”

There will always be some uncertainty about how changes in the ordinance will impact the effectiveness of Westernization as a tourism draw, he added.

Council member Ben Nelson, the only current council member who was part of the Town Council that adopted the new ordinance last year, suggested that “things would have gone differently if you had been here a month ago,” when the solar panel discussion first came up at a council meeting.

Nelson said he appreciates what he called “level-headed discussion” with the WDRB.

Council member Joseph O’Donnell said “I’m new at this … so I want to understand it more, so we can back you guys up when we should.”

Enforcement — who does it, and how — was again a topic of discussion. Oulman said that in the past, the council ended up dealing with appeals and enforcement decisions. Now, the design review board makes basic decisions, which are then subject to an appeal process. “The process is complaint-driven … We don’t look for violations,” he said.

“If it can be resolved quickly, it’s taken care of,” Oulman said of questions about ordinance compliance. “There’s usually an easy solution … if not a reasonable workaround.”

WDRB member Kristen Smith, an ardent supporter of the Westernization program as an economic driver for the town, said that earlier discussion about potential disagreements could head off larger disputes. Oulman said building owners and business operators are encouraged to talk with the WDRB and the town official who oversees Westernization before getting very far along in the application process.

Brian Sweet, co-owner of Cascades Outdoor Store on Riverside Avenue and a member of the WDRB, agreed that starting earlier can head off issues. “We are in it together” as businesspeople and residents, he said.

“Work with the code,” Sweet said. “It can be done.”

Nelson said the council also is responsible for listening to the greater community when making decisions about Westernization. Ranzau said past practices have generated some animosity, but she believes communications have improved now.

Oulman noted that the revised ordinance has eliminated much of the murkiness of the previous document, and “there still is a lot of discretion as to what is ‘Western.’”

Smith says conflict often arises between “what’s modern versus trying to make something look old.”

O’Donnell said he doesn’t want communication around Westernization issues to deteriorate. “Westernization is very critical [for the town],” he said. “Maybe we can tweak it respectfully and professionally. We will be listening to the Westernization board. It would be disrespectful not to listen to you.”

Council member Kirsten Vanderhalf, a former chairman of the WDRB, said some polarization in the community arises from the misconception that Westernization is a separate consideration from other town ordinances.

“It’s not their [the design review board’s] code. It’s the community’s code,” she said. “They are doing what we’ve asked them to do.” Vanderhalf said it is unfortunate that WDRB members are being characterized as “evil people” for making decisions about the code.

“We don’t ask the planning commission ‘why are we doing this,’” Vanderhalf said. “It can’t be the town versus Westernization … We need not to have this divide.”