Although the topic was future-oriented, the spirit of Westernization past and present tended to dominate a community meeting last week about potential changes for the W-3 commercial district.
The informal meeting on Aug. 22 was hosted by an ad hoc committee appointed by the Town Council, at the recommendation of the Planning Commission, to review the Westernization ordinance’s regulations for solar arrays in the W-3 zone, and other considerations.
The discussions originated several months ago when a proposal to amend the Westernization code to more broadly allow solar panels in the W-3 district came before the Westernization Design Review Board and the Planning Commission. No action has been taken on that proposal, which drew considerable public comment both supporting and opposing the amendment.
The ad hoc committee has already made separate recommendations to the Town Council regarding the solar panels issue — which was specifically not on the agenda for last week’s meeting. The intent was to gather ideas and input about a continuing “Westernization vision” for the W-3 business zone.
The committee was seeking feedback on two main areas:
• What, as a business owner or property owner, has been a hindrance to your marketing or construction in regards to the Westernization code?
• What suggestions do you have to improve the community support and continuity of the western theme in the W-3 business district?
On the ad hoc committee are council members Ben Nelson and Kirsten Vanderhalf, Jacque Wilk of the Westernization Design Review Board (WDRB), Planning Commission member Teri Parker, alternative energy consultant Mark Crum and Rita Kenny, co-owner of Winthrop Mountain Sports.
Vanderhalf, former chair of the WDRB, facilitated the meeting, which often strayed into the history of Westernization and how it has been enforced over the years. The town adopted the Western theme in 1972. How it is to be interpreted, applied and enforced has been an ongoing topic since then.
Vanderhalf said the hope was to start an open dialog about W-3 that will be less contentious than discussion of the solar panel issue has been.
“We want everyone with a vested interested in W-3 to share ideas about where we see it going,” Vanderhalf said.
What’s in a zone?
Kenny, who said she has been reviewing every Westernization adopted since the beginning, said that it wasn’t until 1984 that the town began to differentiate between the downtown core and outlying areas such as Highway 20 south of the Methow River bridge, where the W-3 zone is in place. She said the current ordinance broadly defines what is allowable in W-3.
Bart Bradshaw, who owns business properties in both downtown and the W-3 zone, advocated for definitive Westernization standards, and enforcement, in the zone. He recalled that when he opened Pardners Mini Mart in 1983, he was cited by the town for putting up a sandwich board. “I don’t know why it [Westernization] has devolved” since then, he said.
Bradshaw said that several business owners on Highway 20 have sought to meet Westernization expectations, while others have not. “We all complied and tried,” he said. “A lot of us have invested a lot of money in the theme and the dream,” he said. Bradshaw pointed to the example of The Barnyard Cinema, a relatively new building that was designed with Westernization in mind.
“Make it as strict as possible,” Bradshaw said of Westernization in W-3 (which is the zone at both ends of town). “Don’t dilute it.”
Two relatively new buildings in W-3 — Arrowleaf Bistro and the expanded Little Star Montessori School — were singled out for discussion as to whether they convey a Westernization look. Vanderhalf said the Little Star building may not be consistent with what was originally approved by the town.
Katharine Bill, chair of the Little Star board of directors, said “there was no intent … to go around the code … We were under the impression that we were approved … there was no intentional violation.”
“Having something different built was frustrating for us,” said Vanderhalf, who was on the WDRB at the time the Little Star plan was approved — after a lot of back-and-forth discussion.
Kenny said there was “a breakdown in communications” between the town and Little Star, and that the process needs to improve.
Backing it up
Downtown property owner John Lester, who had a major role in the original Westernization effort in 1972, said the current ordinance is too open to interpretation. “So it means nothing,” he said. “It leaves it open to argument.”
“It is a disservice to the ones who invested the money to let others slide through [the ordinance requirements],” Lester added, suggesting that closer inspections and more oversight are needed. “Once you allow someone in the building, you don’t get them out,” he said.
Lester said that in his opinion, “things are sliding by in W-2 [downtown] right now … if you don’t have any teeth to back it up, you’re nowhere.”
Lester said he was “very disappointed” in some of the new buildings in W-3. “It’s not that hard to make it comply,” he said.Business owners need to accept that because of Westernization, “it will cost more here,” he said.
Nelson said that with larger lot sizes in W-3, it’s more difficult to apply the same guidelines that work in the downtown corridor.
Mayor Sally Ranzau said it’s imperative to have more participation on the WDRB, which was hit with several recent resignations and currently doesn’t have enough members to form a quorum. The town is looking for people who want to participate, she said.
There was some discussion about whether the town should increase the emphasis on its western heritage as part of the Westernization theme. Another topic, one that arises often, is that the town has exempted itself from enforcement of Westernization guidelines for its own buildings.
Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle & Sport in the W-3 district at the west end of town, said that “the town should be a partner in creating a western experience.”
The discussion often circled back around to enforcement.
“I need to know the town has got my back” in uniform enforcement, Bradshaw said. Kenny said that “businesses need to back up the town when it comes to enforcement … we have to step up to the plate.”
Vanderhalf summarized the discussion with three take-aways: enforcement needs more attention, community outreach needs to improve between the town and affected property owners, and the current wording of the Westernization code as it applies to W-3 needs to be reviewed.
Any action to amend the existing Westernization ordinance would be subject to public hearings before a Town Council decision.