By Don Nelson
The Winthrop Planning Commission is not going to be rushed into taking a position on a proposal that would amend the town’s Westernization code to loosen restrictions on solar panels in the W-3 zone.
That much was clear at a public hearing the commission conducted last week after the proposal was referred to the commission from the Town Council for review and a recommendation.
The proposal in question, brought to the town by Ellen Lamiman and Cara Godwin, would amend the Westernization ordinance to more broadly allow solar panels in the W-3 zone, generally south of the Methow River Bridge along Highway 20. 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 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 Planning Commission took formal public testimony, most of it in favor of the proposed amendment, at its meeting last week.
After the formal hearing closed, commission Chairman Art Campbell suggested that the question of how solar power arrays can occur in the W-3 zone “is a broad issue that ought to be looked at in a comprehensive, holistic way … and not a piecemeal approach.”
That observation echoed possible actions suggested in a report to the commission by Town Planner Rocklynn Culp. In her report, which summarized the issue and relevant legal and policy considerations, Culp also suggested what she called “a more holistic approach.” She offered suggestions for how the commission might structure a recommendation to the Town Council.
One possibility, Culp said in the report, would be to table discussion of the pending proposal, “taking more time and working collaboratively to envision how Westernization should play out in the W-3 district and how solar could fit in.” Other possibilities would involve “taking time to look at how solar affects the views from specific public vantage points,” and exploring means to “minimize the impacts to the western theme.”
Campbell said that while he personally supports solar as an option and believes it can be accommodated, Westernization needs to be “underlain by a coherent vision … maintaining that coherence is vital to the future of the town.”
“If I had to suggest something, it would be to not recommend approval of the amendment, but make a recommendation to the council that there is strong support for solar … and that the council should launch an expeditious process to review the overall issue,” Campbell said.
“What’s being proposed is part of an overall issue,” Campbell added. “The bigger issue is, how will Westernization absorb solar?” He said any solutions need to be thought-out and comprehensive.
Commission member Barb Preston noted that members of the WDRB have put a lot of effort into the Westernization code update, and while the code should be treated as a “living document” it can’t constantly be a “moving target.”
Most of those testifying last week, including many who don’t live in Winthrop, supported amending the Westernization code to loosen the restrictions on solar arrays in the W-3 zone. They generally pointed to the value of solar power as an alternative energy source, and disagreed that relaxing the ordinance would harm the town’s Westernization appeal to visitors, especially in the W-3 zone.
Others opposed the amendment, arguing that preserving the spirit and practice of Westernization is vital to the town’s long-term economic success, and that solar options are available elsewhere in town.
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 commission that he supports the concept of solar power and employs it at his own home.
But Oulman said he’s concerned about steady erosion of the Westernization code. “What’s going to come down the pike next?” he asked. “There is a constant barrage of challenges and questions.”
Oulman said that Westernization is often misunderstood, and thus mischaracterized, by some people as an ironclad commitment to absolute old west authenticity. “It is an economic development tool,” he said “It’s not historic preservation.”
During the two years the Westernization code was being updated, “nobody raised the issue of solar panels,” Oulman said. “Now, suddenly it’s an issue.”
“This is the wrong time to act on it,” Oulman said of what he called “a rushed approach” to considering the amendment proposal. He suggested “taking a time-out” for broader discussion.
In a statement to the commission, Lamiman said she was concerned that following Culp’s recommendations “would allow the Planning Commission and Town Council to avoid publicly discussing the merits of the amendment at this time.”
She added, “I am all for collaborating to find energy solutions that will be good for Winthrop businesses and the future of the community.”
“At some point a decision will be made, and I hope it is for Winthrop to embrace the future of solar energy technologies while preserving and promoting Winthrop’s downtown old west theme,” Lamiman concluded.
The commission will resume discussions of the issue at its meeting next Tuesday (April 24,) starting at 6 p.m. in the Winthrop Barn. The public hearing portion of the commission’s proceedings is closed.