Winthrop council considers request to allow solar array
By Don Nelson
The Winthrop Town Council found itself in the middle of a discussion about solar power last week when it considered a proposal to modify the town’s updated Westernization ordinance.
At issue was a proposal to amend the ordinance to allow solar panel arrays on building roofs that are visible from anywhere but Highway 20 within the W-3 business district. W-3 generally extends along both sides of Highway 20 south of the Methow River bridge.
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 a public right-of-way such the Susie Stephens Trail or adjacent town streets.
While proponents of the ordinance change suggested that the amendment could benefit several businesses in the W-3 zone, the requested modification would specifically allow a proposed solar array on the roof of Little Star Montessori School’s new building off of White Avenue. The array would not be visible from Highway 20.
The town’s Westernization Design Review Board had earlier reviewed the request and unanimously recommended that the council reject the ordinance amendment proposal.
In a letter to the council, the Westernization board said that “while solar energy is a worthy goal, any change that leads to deterioration of the Westernization Ordinance, Winthrop’s economic driver, would be a serious mistake … this proposal would benefit only 1 or 2 business directly at the extreme detriment of the community as a whole. It also opens up the Ordinance to more challenges and unimaginable special requests in the future.” The board also noted that there are other opportunities for solar installations within the town limits.
“It was shared with these individuals [residents Ellen Laniman and Cara Godwin, who proposed the ordinance amendment] that solar panels are allowed within the town limits as long as they cannot be seen from a public right-of-way. It was also pointed out that the area affected by the Westernization Ordinance is tiny.”
The Methow Conservancy sent a letter to the council supporting the proposed amendment as “a very reasonable approach to allowing the installation of renewable energy infrastructure within the town limits.”
The proposal is to add the following paragraph to the ordinance: “In W-3 solar arrays and solar water heating panels installed on a building roof at the same angle as the roof and extending out from the roof a maximum of 10 inches parallel to the roof surface may be visible from from adjacent public ways other than State Highway 20.”
“We believe this ordinance change will serve to attract new business investment in W-3, and will be viewed by tourists and Winthrop and Methow Valley resident as positive enhancement showing a reasonable approach to including renewable energy in Winthrop,” Godwin and Laniman said in prepared comments.
Supporters and critics
During the public comment period at last week’s packed council meeting, supporters of the request argued that solar and Westernization can be compatible and that the town should support renewable and sustainable energy sources. Opponents cited the request as just another example of Westernization being steadily eroded one action at a time for the benefit of a single applicant.
The ordinance was substantially updated with council approval in May 2017 after two prolonged years of discussions, hundreds of hours of volunteer work, multiple revisions, several public meetings and a host of detailed responses to suggested changes.
Supporters have pointed out that Westernization is what has made Winthrop a popular destination town, and that only by keeping its look authentic and consistent can the town continue to rely on that substantial economic impact.
Kristen Smith, a member of the Westernization board and also marketing director for both Methow Trails and the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, passionately defended the Westernization ordinance against further encroachments at last week’s meeting. She said Winthrop’s competitive advantage as a tourism destination would be compromised by continuous ordinance amendments.
“Westernization is our advantage … and you should fight like hell to keep that advantage,” Smith told the council. The ordinance, she said, “is designed to fend off challenges to our brand.”
Brian Sweet, co-owner of Cascades Outdoor Store and a member of the Westernization board, said that “Winthrop is 100 percent full because of Westernization … We need to maintain that difference to keep it strong. For one mile, let’s make it different from every other town.”
Business owner Bart Bradshaw said that while he has “struggled” with some aspects of Westernization over the years, he noted that “it’s a hard job we’ve asked them [the Westernization board] to … they are always in a tough spot.”
“You’ve asked them to take care of this … they should be the voice of Westernization,” Bradshaw added. “They work hard for you, for our town, for our businesses.”
Godwin noted that only the W-3 district would be affected by the revision. “Solar and Westernization are not mutually exclusive,” she told the council. As currently written, Godwin said, the ordinance “essentially makes it impossible” to have solar arrays in the W-3 zone. “We feel it can fit with the ordinance change,” she said.
Laniman said she had contacted many Winthrop businesses and found strong support for the ordinance change. She presented the council with the signatures of more than 50 businesses owners or operators who she said expressed support for the ordinance change.
Mark Ryan, partner in the Ryan & Kuehler law firm on Highway 20 and president of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, said “I disagree with Kristen [Smith] about 1 percent of the time,” but he believes the ordinance revision “can be compatible if done smartly.”
Lauri Martin, co-owner of Robins Egg Bleu on Highway 20 and a member of the Westernization board, said the solar array “will detract [from Westernization] and make it like everyplace else.”
During council discussion of the proposal, council member Joseph O’Driscoll said that exceptions have been made to the ordinance before. “I don’t think this is that big a deal,” he said of the proposed change. “I’m 100 percent for it. I don’t see a downside to it.”
“Our job is to listen to the community as a whole,” O’Driscoll added.
Council member Ben Nelson said that “I like the idea of codifying an exception … rather than just let it happen.”
“We’re not a business, we’re a community,” Nelson said. “Do we bet everything on enforcing the code everywhere? We’re looking for balance.”
Mayor Sally Ranzau pointed out that the town has a big solar array at its sewage treatment plant and sells power to the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative. “We’re not against solar,” she said. “It’s just a Westernization issue.”
“Winthrop is a tourism community,” Ranzau said. “The reason we have our amenities is because of the tourists who come through.” At the same time, she said, “we don’t want to lose our quality of life.”
“Where was all this passion when we spent two years revising the code?” council member Kirsten Vanderhalf countered. “No one seemed to care at that point. Rewriting the code was a struggle.” Before she came onto the council, Vanderhalf was chair of the Westernization board.
Before the ordinance can be changed, it would be subject to a public hearing before the Winthrop Planning Commission, which would then make its own recommendation to the council.
Godwin and Laniman have asked for a place on the council’s March 7 meeting agenda to request that the proposal be sent to the planning commission.
Vanderhalf suggested that the council and the Westernization board meet before any public hearing on the ordinance amendment. A date for that meeting had not been set as of early this week.
Westernization was adopted and embraced at about the same time the North Cascades Highway opened in 1972, to increase tourism interest in the town. The Westernization code and its enforcement have been a nearly constant matter of discussion — and debate — ever since.