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Big Rock espresso issue boils over

Things got nasty at Coupeville’s town council meeting Tuesday, as the final public hearing over a controversial commercial zoning application deteriorated into an emotional display of political divisiveness and procedural misunderstanding.

Several times Mayor Nancy Conard had to bang the gavel to quell an outburst, while more than one member of the audience, apparently displeased by the council’s capitulations to commercial interests, stormed from the town’s Rec Hall in disgust.

In the end, after nearly two hours of impassioned testimony and debate, the council unanimously voted to approve the rezone application submitted last October by Frank and Miriam Meyer, a decision that will facilitate the relocation of Miriam’s Espresso from the east to the west side of Coupeville’s South Main Street near the town’s Big Rock.

Council member Frank Tippets recused himself from the proceedings due to a conflict of interest. He left the meeting and did not return.

Opponents of the Meyers’ application to rezone the 22,400 square-foot property at 200 S. Main have latched onto the Big Rock — a 12,000-year-old glacial erratic with scenic appeal — as a symbol of Coupeville’s potentially dim future, arguing that to obscure the giant landmark with a new business is to favor economic growth over the preservation of the town’s unique rural and historic appeal.

The rock itself does not reside on the parcel owned by the Meyers, but on the property of Michael and Sharon Johnson located directly behind it. The Johnsons have said that regardless of what happens to the lot fronting theirs, they plan on putting up an 8-foot fence along the eastern line of their property.

Tuesday’s hearing was a continuation from the council’s last meeting of June 25, when it was decided that too many people — about 50 folks in all — had offered too much testimony and information for the council to act upon at the time.

On one side are those who say they support Miriam’s as a local business, and that it makes a nice fit with the community and the town; on the other are those who argue that, besides blocking the view of the Big Rock, a new commercial structure on west Main St. would cause traffic jams, create automotive hazards for pedestrians as well as diminish Coupeville’s small-town, historic appeal.

If, however, too much input characterized the last council hearing, this Tuesday’s forum was marked by an uncommon display of bad feelings, with individuals on both sides of the issue offering up harsh assessments of their political adversaries. Nothing less than the town’s future appeared at stake during the ensuing melee.

“I don’t like a town council that values the dollar over the well-being of this community,” Coupeville resident David Medley testified, warning the council against “thinking of growth as inevitable and a measure of economic worth.”

Medley also said he doesn’t like driving through town and seeing commercial structures “with no sense of place for the community.”

Later in the meeting, Medley left the hall muttering and then came back minutes later, only to walk out angry once again.

Coupeville resident Ken Pickard, also opposed to the rezone, submitted a 6-page memorandum to the council listing the reasons the Meyers’ application should be denied, all based on goals set out in the town’s Comprehensive Plan.

Pickard argued that none of the conditions he cited — such as compatibility with surrounding structures and preservation of historical character — would be met by the Meyers’ proposed development.

“I don’t think we need this,” Pickard said.

Coupeville resident Lisa Tichy said that, as someone formerly involved with historical preservation in Seattle, she would rather see a park than another retail business on the property.

“We’re over-retailed,” Tichy said. “We have lost a sense of place. Everything’s beginning to look the same. I sincerely hope we think about how we use that property. Let’s think about how to celebrate that space.”

Numerous individuals suggested turning the property in question into a park, despite the fact that the parcel is in escrow to the Meyers. A coalition of citizens including Pickard say they have raised around $50,000 for the project, and during the meeting Coupeville resident Beuhl Neidlinger stood up and said he would pledge $1,000 on the spot to support the creation of a park.

Jack McPherson, a former Coupeville mayor, said that he didn’t think a park would constitute a good use of the space. He added that, though he was at first against the rezone, he now supports it.

“I don’t think the rock is being degraded in any way,” McPherson said, adding that “the Meyers have proven themselves as good business members of this community.”

Caila Dozier said she also supports the proposed relocation of Miriam’s, arguing that such business decisions are “the American way.”

“I can’t think of a better business I would want to establish themselves,” Dozier said. “If you follow the rules, you should be able to move forward.”

“Growth is inevitable,” Coupeville resident Ken Waln said, “so let’s embrace the right growth. In my opinion, this is the right growth.”

Miriam Meyer said her expectation of support for relocating Miriam’s “has been overwhelmingly proven” by the folks who have come forward in favor of the rezone.

“This whole issue has become far too political for me,” she said, adding that “a small, vocal group objecting to our plan really made me question if this is what we wanted.”

However, Meyer argued she had every right to expect her proposal would be approved.

“We are moving ahead with this plan, because that has been the vision,” Meyer said.

It was apparent from the explosive tenor of the meeting that the issues involved hit a nerve and exposed a deep division among members of the community. Often, the controversy seemed to overstep the bounds of the matter at hand, a point Conard tried to elucidate when she made a distinction between quasi-judicial and legislative actions.

In taking action on the rezone application, Conard said, it was only up to the council to decide if the proposal met the requirements of the Comp Plan, which in their eyes it did. It was not within the scope of the hearing to take issue with the zoning requirements per se, she added. Any amendments to the plan itself, regarding zoning or any other matter, would take legislative action during a review of the plan.

Despite repeated attempts by the mayor to quell disruptions, folks continued to heckle the council as the members spoke prior to voting on the measure. Council members Marshall Bronson and Phil Williamson in particular caused quite a stir when they addressed the meeting.

Bronson’s comments were especially feisty. He referred to those who opposed the rezone as a “tyranny of the minority,” adding that no one even noticed the Big Rock “until somebody wanted to put something in front of it.”

In supporting his decision to vote in favor of the rezone, Bronson said the planned commercial development “is a legitimate use for a business that has been very successful, and that the community has embraced.”

After proclaiming that he was “going to clear the air a bit,” Williamson was interrupted by verbal lobs and derisive laughter from the audience until Conard suggested that anyone incapable of remaining quiet leave the room, which Medley at this point did — only to return minutes later, and then leave once again.

“There’s a lot of nostalgia going on at both meetings,” Williamson said, “but you can’t base a business decision on nostalgia.”

Council member Bob Clay said he at first was against the rezone, but later changed his mind after perusing the conditions set forth in the Comp Plan. Clay also dismissed those who would develop a park on the property.

“Another group all of a sudden comes up with a grandiose idea to turn this into a park,” he said. “We’re getting our priorities mixed up here.”

Council member Donna Keeler’s comments were in general more temperate. “There’s some strong emotions here,” Keeler said. “We’ve all been thinking about this for the last few weeks.” She added that the controversy surrounding the rezone has been “reactive, after the application was submitted,” and — like Conard — attempted to define exactly what the hearing was supposed to accomplish.

“Our job is only to judge whether this proposal meets the criteria,” Keeler said, adding that it was not in council’s power to move beyond that scope.

Just prior to adjournment, Bronson expressed profound disappointment over the idea that the council’s final decision on the matter might encounter legal appeal.

“Every single one of you pays a lot of money for the town lawyer to defend the council in its decision,” he said.

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