County calls woodcraft
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:41 PM
"It's an old Hollywood adage: Whom the spotlight doesn't singe, it illuminates. Naturals, they're called, everyday folks who thrive in the brief, Warholian glare of publicity. A sudden burst of media attention seems to bring out their latent celebrity like a blossom on a hothouse flower.And you need not trip all the way down to Sunset Boulevard to discover these would-be icons. Flash a little spotlight here on Whidbey Island, and - presto! - it's showtime.For sure, there's something of the emergent folk hero about Coupeville resident Robert Becker. He's quietly charismatic, a slow-to-speak yet well-spoken man, unassuming while at the same time direct, and generous and easy when listening to others talk. Days in the sun have etched deep lines in his tawny, cowboy-handsome features. He's 54, doesn't look it.Traditionally, folk heroes require a rallying cause to both isolate and magnify their charm, and Becker's cause - his Whidbey Island causecelebre - is this ongoing fight to sell his hand-crafted picnic tables, sansbureaucratic red tape and zoning rigmarole. As he sees it, the propertyat the intersection of State Route 20 and Race Road - part of a 60-acrechunk of land owned by his 86-year-old father Bob - is his to use exactly ashe sees fit.County officials see it otherwise.Island County Planning Director Phil Bakke says Becker's property is not zoned commercial, and therefore all those tagged wooden tables sittingin his front yard are in violation of the code for land zoned rural.It's primary use is for a home, said Bakke, It's not for conducting a business.Bakke says he has received numerous written and phoned complaints about THE picnic tables scattered around Becker'sproperty, especially of late. Bakke says the increasing calls might indicate that people are offended by the scale of it.Bakke said Island County has one of the most generous home businesscodes ... in Western Washington, and he strongly encourages Becker toget a plot of ground that is zoned commercial.Becker, who laughingly dubbed himself the contraband salesman, saysthe executive arm of the planning and development wing of county government is going too far in it's efforts to screen his home industry.I'm a veteran and a taxpayer, he said. I just want to work. In mid-June,the department, after informal discussions, sent Becker a certifiedletter demanding he cease and desist by June 21.He ceased, briefly, and made at least one vociferous gesture in thedirection of permanent forbearance.Becker recently told the Whidbey News-Times: We're selling out andgetting out of here. It's not worth it.County officials, publicly neither pleased nor displeased but apparently operating under the assumption that Becker was indeed relocating his business, chose to tolerate 60-odd picnic tables in the yard as a kindof liquidation sale.Becker, however, has changed his tune. He wants to stay, and continue selling his wares just as always. In part, what changed his mind was the upsurge of local involvement, which he likens to the support at a local teamster's strike.(Of course, the fact that Becker sold 13 tables last week probably doesn'thurt his resolve much, either.)I'm all for supporting him, said Gunner Loveng, a 12-year resident of Oak Harbor who works for Puget Sound Energy. I think the community has to stand up and say, 'Hold it, we're here to be accounted for.'In a notebook that Becker left by the front gate to his property last week, people jotted comments. Many of the comments sound a familiarLibertarian-cum-Thoreau type of rhetoric.It's time to change this government, wrote one resident. Another claimedthat this type of government intervention is truly frightening.Becker says his favorite posting, left by a Concerned Citizen, Age 10: Ido not in any way support the suppressing of people's rights. You paytaxes on this land and you should be able to make a small profit off of it.A the top of a copy Becker has made from pages of the notebook are the words, Fight the Bastards.The tone of the conflict appears to have been set.Basically, said Becker, I'm just a voice for the public. I want to see something done. I feel that my rights as a property owner are being violated. I realize there are codes, but this is more like a covenants.Becker added that society in general is getting to be too much like a police state, and that government needs to do more protecting than enforcing.While Becker tends to couch the stand-off in general terms - the individual vs. the state, freedom vs. intervention - Bakke, every bit the calm diplomat, wants to reel it back in to the details. In particular, he says, Becker had agreed to scale back his operation.He reneged on an agreement, Bakke said.According to Bakke, at a June 25 meeting with Becker, he and enforcement officer Matt Kukuk made some generous interpretations of the (ruralzoning) code to figure out a means by which (Becker and his father) couldoperate their business. The arrangement was that Becker would limit hisfront-yard display to two tables.They left the office with a smile on their face, said Bakke. He subsequently sent Becker an official letter outlining the details of their meeting.Becker agreed that the commissioner said I could put a few tables downthere, but added: I don't know what a few is.And there, in a nutshell, is the source of the conflict - the various andconflicting and sometimes slippery interpretations of existing codes.Bakke, for his part, contends that Becker's tables do not fit the code'sdefinition of forest products because the lumber was not felled directly on the sellers land. (As a proper example of forest product, Bakke pointed tochainsaw sculptures which are created on-site.)Above and beyond this, Bakke argued that the existing property codes, which constrain the amount of land that is zoned commercial, have received tremendous consensus and political support from the community.According to Bakke, the county has also worked extremely hard to encourage home businesses.He adds that not only do the codes address functional concerns in terms ofstrip development, they also are in place to maintain safety alonglimited access highways.What seemed to baffle Bakke, though, is that Becker has not taken advantage of the political processes available to him for resolving such disputes.For example, at a nominal fee ($55) the county will provide an independent,highly qualified third party to review any cases brought by citizens before the Island County commissioners' office.The county has made it as easy as possible for folks to appeal, said Bakke.While Becker understands why the codes are in place - to prevent Whidbey Island from looking like Mexico - he contends that his business is afar cry from having televisions and Tupperware and rebuilt refrigeratorslying around the front yard.I would really like to meet the fellow that doesn't like this operation,Becker said. I consider my tables as a service to the community. Everybodythinks (my display) look(s) good.Becker says that, what's more, he feels scapegoated by the county.There's a lot of people doing what I'm doing, he says, (but) I don't want toturn them in to save my ass. That's not my style.For now, Becker plans on standing his ground. He jokes about his position as a political martyr for the public's best interest.I really didn't want to be such an advocate, he says about his moment in the political limelight, but I didn't want to lay down either.I'm not afraid of them, Becker says regarding his confrontation with the Planning Department. He chalks up this courage partially to the fact that, after his house burned down last November, he doesn't feel like he has a whole lot more to lose.Says Becker: I feel that things happen for a reason. "