Revisions would simplify rules, change enforcement process
By Ann McCreary
Winthrop business owners packed a Town Council meeting last week to express support for the town’s westernization code, which is in the process of being rewritten.
In fact, the ordinance been under revision for almost two years, but appears to be nearing completion.
The council held a workshop session Dec. 7 to discuss a draft of the westernization code, after hearing business owners describe westernization as Winthrop’s “vision” and “mission statement.”
“I’ve spent all these years living it, selling it and seeing the benefits,” said Rita Kenny, co-owner of Winthrop Mountain Sports. “It’s given us an identify that is different than any other town on Washington. Westernization is what holds this town together.”
Town officials who are responsible for administering and enforcing westernization, however, said the code as it exists now is confusing and often creates conflict rather than unity.
“It’s just too hard to use,” said Ron McCollum, who head Winthrop’s Westernization Design Review Board (WDRB). That is the new name for the Westernization and Architectural Committee — more commonly called the “westernization committee” — that administers the code.
“Business owners would come in and say, ‘You’re against us, you are hurting our business.’ There are so many misunderstandings about westernization,” McCollum said in an interview after the council workshop.
The code revision began as an effort to rewrite the application that businesses submitted for signs, McCollum said. “Then we began to realize that the whole code needs to be changed.”
Winthrop’s Planning Commission was scheduled to review the latest code revision, including changes suggested at the council workshop, at its meeting on Tuesday (Dec. 13).
A public hearing on the code before the Winthrop Planning Commission is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 10, said Town Clerk Michelle Gaines.
The goal of the code revision is to make it “easier to understand and easier to administer,” according to a memo to the council from the WDRB.
The new document includes a purpose statement for Winthrop’s westernization program that was not part of the previous ordinance.
The program aims to “promote the economic and general welfare of the community by enhancing the overall visual attractiveness of the town through a thoughtful and consistent replication of history, design and appearance of a western frontier community as it might have looked around the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century.”
The code also includes detailed descriptions of building materials, designs and standards to carry out the western theme — including lists of 120 specific Victorian paint colors and about 50 typographical fonts that businesses are allowed to use on signs and buildings.
Steve Oulman, a retired land use planner who moved to the Methow Valley about four years ago, was recruited to assist the WDRB with the task of rewriting the ordinance.
Among the most significant changes relates to code enforcement, he said. The town’s westernization committee will no longer play a role in enforcing the ordinance as it has in the past.
“Enforcement is always an issue and has been a concern in the community because the code has been difficult to administer,” Oulman said.
“If you’re working with a very complicated and hard-to-understand set of rules, you don’t make consistent decisions and you get people upset and confused,” he said.
McCollum said removing the westernization committee’s enforcement role addresses another fundamental problem.
“You shouldn’t have a volunteer group of non-elected people taking quasi-judicial actions” such as imposing fines, McCollum said.
The westernization committee’s responsibility will now be limited to reviewing applications for new construction, remodels, signage and other projects subject to the ordinance, Oulman said.
Violations will be handled by “a three-step process” that begins with the town’s designated “westernization administrator” (currently the deputy clerk) attempting to resolve any issues informally.
The second step would be a formal notice of code violation issued at the direction of the mayor and setting a deadline to correct the violation.
The person receiving the violation can appeal to the Town Council, which will determine only whether a violation has occurred, but not decide penalties.
The final step would be a civil penalty with a deadline for correction and a fine of $250 per day for each day that the violation continues, or the person issued the violation could appeal to municipal court.
By making westernization requirements easier to understand, and trying to resolve violations informally, enforcement will be easier, Oulman predicted.
“I would be really surprised to see fines levied … when reasonable solutions are available,” he said.
Mayor Anne Acheson cited concerns during last week’s workshop about financial impacts on the town as a result of some code revisions, particularly requirements that public projects — such as town-owned buildings and trails — adhere to westernization requirements governing things like materials and design.
“There is no doubt that public projects should undergo a review by WDRB and the Town should make every effort to westernize public facilities when feasible, but to require adherence to the proposed code will likely reduce the town’s ability to provide and maintain future amenities that would benefit town citizens,” Acheson said in a memo to the council.
Projects like the proposed RiverWalk trail along the Methow River might be jeopardized because they would be required to use more expensive materials for the trail surface, retaining walls and railings, she said.
“You start changing materials and that adds cost. It has real implications as to whether we can go forward … the funding we have no longer covers the cost,” Acheson said.
Oulman said the ordinance stipulates that projects costing more than $200,000 would require a public hearing to address westernization before the Town Council. “Ultimately, the decision is up to the council on materials,” he told the council. The new code is “descriptive rather than prescriptive,” he said.
Council members questioned the impact of the code on existing buildings and signs, like those surrounding the baseball field, that don’t meet westernization standards.
“Think of this update as making a difference for projects going forward … rather than worrying about what has already happened,” Oulman said. “It’s not going to be the heavy hand of regulation by the Town of Winthrop.”
Some business owners at the workshop said they felt the town should adhere to the same regulations businesses are required to follow.
“If the town doesn’t follow the code, why would anybody else want to follow it?” McCollum asked council members.
“Whether it is material for the RiverWalk, or design of railings, it will be up to elected officials to apply discretion whether it is ‘western’ or not,” Oulman said in an interview after the workshop session. “As long as you have due process … the Town Council always has the option to make an exception.”
Acheson also expressed concern during the council workshop about “potentially unenforceable provisions” in the code that were noted by attorneys who reviewed the document.
Among the provisions in question were restrictions on the content of signs, regulations governing which holiday decorations may be displayed, and requirements that businesses participate in the town’s winter holiday lighting display.
The mayor noted that the proposed new code “expands the application of westernization to almost any change on a property,” and urged the council to consider the appropriateness of different levels of westernization suggested for different areas of town.
The ordinance delineates three areas within town limits that must meet different westernization requirements. The most stringent is the downtown business core that extends from bridge to bridge.
The goal of the ordinance “is to make sure everything is reasonably consistent, particularly in the downtown core. There is a lot of difference in how you treat a highway frontage as opposed to a walkable downtown,” Oulman explained.
“Everyone recognizes that the IGA [grocery store] is different than a business downtown. This is an economic development program, not a historic preservation program,” he said.
“People don’t see the level of detail as they drive past the bike shop at one end of town, or the IGA on the other end of town. As they walk through town they see more details and we want to make those consistent and architecturally correct,” Oulman said.
In addition to regulating the appearance of signs in Winthrop, the ordinance also establishes limitations on space that can be devoted to signs, setting a limit of 20-30 percent of a building façade that can be covered by signs.
“We’re of the belief that less is better,” McCollum said.
Providing lists of specific colors and fonts that are allowed on signs and buildings will simplify and clarify the application process, Oulman said. He said local hardware stores will be able to match the colors.
In the past, applicants were provided a “one-page photocopy of colors that are historically correct,” and then the westernization committee had to examine paint chips or artist renderings to determine if the colors conformed, Oulman said.
“The goals are to make this easier to administer, easier for applicants,” he said.
Mayor Acheson, however, said she was concerned that the new ordinance may require increased staff time, and fees to support the westernization program may have to be increased accordingly.
She told the council last week that she wanted to make sure that the fee schedule in the final ordinance ensures that that the program is self-sustaining.
Fees are assessed for project applications, signs and artwork, and enforcement.
Oulman said concerns brought up during the workshop would be addressed where possible in another draft of the ordinance before it is brought to a public hearing.
“This is not your last whack at this. There is a public hearing to come,” he told the council.