By Don Nelson
Sometimes the collision of good intentions can be a difficult thing to watch. There’s rarely a completely satisfactory outcome. Such was the case last week when the Town of Winthrop’s Westernization Architectural Committee (WAC) recommended that the owner of Abbycreek Inn (nee Alderbrook Inn, nee Best Western Cascade Inn) be assessed a civil penalty for violating the Westernization code.
By strict interpretation of the code, Abbycreek Inn’s owners were in fact out of compliance with Westernization requirements that are intended to keep the town’s look authentic and consistent. The WAC’s recommendation had the force of law and more than 40 years of history behind it.
But of course the issue wasn’t that clear-cut. Josh and Kristin Buehler, who recently bought the inn on Highway 20 and have been ambitiously renovating it, were making every effort to comply with the Westernization code, but circumstances and timing were working against them.
What it came down to was that they had to break the law in order to comply with the law, and then they found themselves at odds with the law again when they apparently achieved compliance and … are you following this? Good for you, because it’s a bit tangled. If not, here’s how it went:
The Buehlers bought the decidedly less-than-five-star property and renamed it Alderbrook Inn, which caught the attention of the people who own Alderbrook Resort on Hood Canal, who asked the Buehlers to cease and desist.
Down came the newly installed (and compliant) Alderbrook Inn sign, which exposed the old Cascade Inn sign — a code violation. The Buehlers scrambled to have a new sign made, but five days — with a maximum $250-a-day assessment for non-compliance in effect — passed before they were able to install the Abbycreek Inn sign. Problem solved — except that the Buehlers hadn’t had the new sign approved by the WAC, whose next meeting was several days down the road. And not getting approval is — you guessed it — subject to a penalty.
All of which is oddly logical and legally defensible, but it didn’t pass the fairness test for some town council members when the WAC’s recommendation came before them last week.
The council discussion centered around two unarguable points: The WAC was doing its job and deserves support for its efforts. At the same time, the Buehlers are not indifferent scofflaws who thumbed their noses at Westernization (and there are a few of those around town). Some council members argued for a token fine to acknowledge the appropriateness of the WAC’s actions. Ultimately, the council decided not to assess any penalty.
There is some recent, relevant and uncomfortable history between the WAC and the council that may have had an influence on last week’s events. Not long ago, the town was asked by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to approve installation of an electronic sign at the town limits. The WAC pointed out, and a lot of downtown business owners agreed, that the proposed sign was clearly in violation of the Westernization ordinance, and would look tacky to boot. The council heard but chose not to endorse the WAC’s position, and gave WSDOT the go-ahead. The state agency resolved the issue by deciding to place its new sign outside of town.
So it’s possible that the WAC, recently rebuffed when it was arguably in the right, was trying to make a point with the recommended penalties for Abbycreek Inn. It sure got people’s attention. The two most-recent council rejections of WAC positions may be creating an unfortunate perception that Westernization just isn’t that important. Fortunately, we can all take advantage of a refresher course in why it is. Most of us weren’t around more than 40 years ago when the town enthusiastically and authentically embraced the Westernization concept. The planning and attention to detail were mind-boggling, which is why the concept still works today. A couple of citizens who were there in the beginning — John Lester and Larry Higbee — will offer a presentation about the history of Westernization on Thursday (April 9) at the Winthrop Barn, starting at 6 p.m. It should be informational and inspiring, and perhaps help us mobilize all of our good intentions behind one worthy cause.