Ad hoc group will consider solar issue in W-3 zone

Don Nelson

The Winthrop Town Council has informally endorsed a recommendation by the town’s Planning Commission to form an ad hoc committee that will review the Westernization ordinance’s regulations for solar panel arrays in the W-3 zone.

The Planning Commission’s recommendation came after the commission held a public hearing on a request, brought to the town council by Ellen Lamiman and Cara Godwin, to amend the Westernization ordinance to more broadly allow solar panels in the W-3 zone.

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 town’s Westernization Design Review Board (WDRB) reviewed the request earlier and unanimously recommended that the council reject the ordinance amendment proposal. After hearing informal public comments supporting and opposing the amendment, the council referred the request to the planning commission for consideration.

The proposal has generated considerable public comment, at council and planning commission meetings and in written submissions. Much of the comment has been in support of the proposed ordinance amendment, while supporters of the Westernization ordinance have strongly supported its current restrictions. The Westernization code was updated last year after a couple of years of detailed discussions by volunteers, with numerous opportunities for public input. The question of solar arrays in W-3 never came up in those discussions and was not raised until recently.

At its meeting last week, the Town Council reviewed a report from Town Planner Rocklynn Culp, outlining the Planning Commission’s findings and recommendation. The report included dozens of pages of written comments — more public input than she’s seen on any previous issue, Culp told the council.

After its hearing and further discussion at a subsequent meeting, the Planning Commission recommended to the council that it “form a committee to look more broadly at how outdoor appurtenances in general, and alternative energy technologies in particular, fit in the W-3 district.”

The report suggested that such a committee should include representatives of the Town Council, the Planning Commission and the WDRB, people with alternative energy expertise, and Winthrop residents. The committee would be expected to return a recommendation for action to the Town Council within three months, and work toward drafting a recommendation within six months.

“The Planning Commission is confident the Town can find a solution to the broader issue that provides for a reasonable accommodation of alternative technologies within Westernization while sustaining the overall vision of Westernization,” the commission’s report concluded.

Council member Bill McAdow said he was concerned that the town was “kicking it [the solar issue] down the road” and delaying a decision.

Mayor Sally Ranzau said that the town should take the time necessary to review its “overall vision of W-3 … we need a more-definitive plan.”

Council member Ben Nelson said that while the council should be considering questions about how to support Westernization, “we don’t want to create the impression that people can’t challenge the code if there is a problem.”

Steve Oulman, a WDRB member who was the main author of the Westernization code update adopted by the Town Council in May 2017, told the council that “W-3 is unfinished business … we have more work to do … we would like to do it with the community’s support. We have to coalesce around a point of view.”

Nelson and council member Kirsten Vanderhalf, who was chair of the WDBR before she came on to the council, agreed to represent the council in the ad hoc committee.

Lamiman said she would like to be part of the committee. Council member Bill Kilby responded that “you’re the one who wrote it [the solar proposal] … it might not sit well with other people if you are involved … it might tarnish the committee to have someone who started it [the solar issue].” Lamiman told council members she could be objective and has professional experience that would be valuable.

Ranzau said she would work on putting together a committee and report back to the council. Formal adoption of the planning commission’s recommendation was tabled until the council’s next meeting.

In other business:

• The council agreed to annex the town to the Okanogan Conservation District, which will enable town residents to have access to conservation support and other programs such as wildfire preparedness. The district, a non-regulatory agency, provides a variety of programs and assistance to property owners.

• Approved the closing and escrow agreement to sell town property on Horizon Flats for a price of $118,000 to Devin Farms Limited Partnership, which includes Doug, Steve and Betsy Devin.