Town Council hears objections to flashing lights
By Don Nelson
The Winthrop Town Council will revisit its approval of flashing pedestrian crosswalk signs on White Avenue after residents protested the decision at last week’s council meeting.
At its June 7 meeting, the council supported a flashing signal at the crossing just south of the White Avenue intersection with Highway 20. After hearing objections last week, the council agreed to reconsider the decision at its July 19 meeting.
Last week’s discussion focused on a couple of topics: Westernization and the need for better traffic control and enforcement of speed limits, especially where pedestrians are frequently crossing.
The pedestrian crossing in question is part of the Susie Stephens Trail project the town is working on. At the earlier council meeting, Town Planner Rocklynn Culp said that the options were a “rapid flash beacon” sign that would flash only when someone is using the crosswalk, or standard pedestrian crossing signs. The flashing beacon sign would be solar powered.
The town’s Westernization Design Review Board (WDRB) had recommended standard, unlighted crossing signs because they are more consistent with the town’s Westernization theme. Under the town’s recently adopted update of the Westernization code the town is exempted from most compliance requirements.
Culp brought the question to the council for its consideration because, as she noted in a background memo, “both the Town Council and the WDRB have expressed reluctance” to use the flashing signs. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will allow either, she said.
The Stephens Trail is being extended from Little Star Montessori School to a crossing of Highway 20 near the Virginian resort. That crossing will also need some kind of signage to alert motorists to pedestrian use. “The Town has heard complaints about pedestrian safety in both of these locations,” Culp said in the memo.
At that earlier meeting, council member Ben Nelson said the choice of a flashing sign is a “no-brainer to me” because he has children who cross White Avenue at that location. “It doesn’t make sense not to have this technology if we can,” he said.
Nelson made the motion to reconsider the decision at last week’s meeting.
Business owner Bart Bradshaw told the council he opposed the flashing lights at the crosswalk. He said that downtown business interests were not taken into account when the council reached its earlier decision.
Ardis Bynum said she agrees that the crosswalk needs to signed and well-marked for pedestrian safety, but that Westernization must also be taken into consideration.
In a letter to the council, Kristen Smith, a WDRB member and marketing director for the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, asked the council to reconsider its decision on the crosswalk markings. “Winthrop’s traffic, population and trail usage do not warrant the extreme measure of installing flashing pedestrian crossings,” she said in the letter.
Smith said that many in the community “believe strongly that when we begin to add big city elements of lights, chain stores, mini-malls, etc., we will very quickly destroy the character and way of life that the residents hold so dear and that our visitors envy.”
Council member Mike Strulic said he is adamantly opposed to flashing lights at the intersection. Strulic said he recently visited Crested Butte, Colorado, another town with a Western theme, and was impressed with how consistently that town adhered to it.
“They’re holding to a certain standard and code,” Strulic said of Crested Butte. “It’s extremely important to be nitpicky.”
Winthrop needs to be just as vigilant about observing and enforcing Westernization, Strulic said. “We have to stick to our guns on Westernization,” he said.
Council member Rick Northcott said he had no problem reviewing the White Avenue crosswalk signage, but was more concerned at the pedestrian crossing planned for Highway 20. Studies have shown that the 25 mile per hour speed limit is frequently exceeded by most traffic on the highway. “They’re going way too fast now,” he said.
Council members Nelson and Northcott agreed that Westernization is a vital part of the local economy, but not all of it. “I appreciate Westernization, but it’s not the only thing that makes this community go,” Northcott said.
Doug Mohre, co-owner of Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe, countered that “you can’t comprehend how many [visitors] are blown away by our town.”
“I hear about it constantly,” he said. “Thousands of visitors have told me time and again.”
The council will accept written comments on the crosswalk lighting issue before the July 19 meeting. At that meeting, residents will also have an opportunity to speak about the issue.
Little Star plans
In other business, the council heard a presentation from representatives of Little Star Montessori School about parking plans related to a new building the school will be constructing.
In addition to the school’s existing lot, which accommodates 51 cars, 17 spaces will be added along Norfolk Avenue. The angle-in spaces will be for public use and not reserved for the school.
Margo Peterson Aspholm, architect for the Little Star project, said the new building will accommodate infants and toddlers, and the additional parking spaces will make it safe and convenient for parents to drop the kids off and pick them up. She said that Little Star will take responsibility for snow removal in the winter.
The town’s public works and planning departments have been working with the school to come up with a workable parking scheme, Culp told the council. The council informally accepted the proposal.
The council also heard from downtown business and property owners who expressed concern that they are not being properly consulted about the proposed Riverwalk project, a trail along the Chewuch and Methow Rivers that would connect with the Susie Stephens Trail. The Riverwalk would cross several private properties.
Mohre said that not all the property owners have signed off on the proposal, and said the town hasn’t made an effort to bring all the property owners together to talk about plans for the trail. He said the property owners will meet independently to discuss it.
Mohre added that the property owners will withhold support from the Riverwalk proposal if the flashing crosswalk lights are installed on White Avenue.
In a letter to the council, former Mayor Anne Acheson — writing as a private resident — said that “I believe the development of the Riverwalk is in the town’s the business community’s best interest, however, it is a completely separate issue from the trail crossings. To change your decision [about the trail crossings] based on such a threat will set a dangerous precedent that a subset of property owners can influence unrelated council decisions by threatening withdrawal of support for the Riverwalk.”
Mohre insisted that the property owners were not trying to coerce a decision from the council.
John Lester, who was involved in the development of Westernization more than 40 years ago and has frequently chided the town for not rigorously enforcing the Westernization code, told the council members that property owners “are not being heard” on the Riverwalk project.
Lester added his own feelings about Westernization, which he has previously made clear.
“Westernization is our livelihood,” he said. “We are losing Westernization one door, one window, one sidewalk, one light at a time,” he said. “Over time it will be depleted.”
Lester added that “it is time for the town to get out of the exempt status, get on board [with Westernization] and become part of the community.”
As to the Riverwalk, Lester said that the town won’t get buy-in from property owners unless it gets them more involved.
Although Mohre and Lester said the town has not made an effort to keep property owners involved, the town actually did just that at a public meeting in July 2015, to which anyone with an interest in the Riverwalk project was invited to hear about its progress.
Strulic urged that the town and business owners make a better effort to communicate.
“Rocklynn [Culp] is on the right track,” he said. “Let’s just put it together.”