McMansion splits county, committee

Island County commissioners met with a county committee last Wednesday in an effort to ease a strain that threatens to erupt into litigation.

Members of the county’s Historic Review Committee said they were pleased that the commissioners reached out to them and they praised the civil nature of the exchange. But in the end, none of the issues at the heart of the controversy were settled.

And litigation is still on the table.

“The positive tone of the meeting was successful in getting us on the same page and working towards something positive,” said James Moore, the chairman of the Historic Review Committee, which is charged with reviewing permit applications in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

Members of the committee said they felt irrelevant because their decisions are only recommendations and may be overruled, without any chance of appeal, by the planning director. They pointed out that the town of Coupeville has a similar committee with decision-making authority, as well as a path to an appeal.

Commissioner Phil Bakke said he was hopeful that many of the issues will be resolved with “the new generation of ordinances” that will come before commissioners next year.

The controversy started this summer with the erroneously approval of a so-called McMansion in the heart of Ebey’s Landing Historical Reserve, which is supposed to be protected from intrusive, out-of-character structures. The committee members had recommended turning down the permit application, but a paperwork snafu lead to accidental approval.

Several things have aggravated the situation.

On Sept. 2, the Historic Review Committee, or HRC, unanimously voted to authorized a lawsuit against both Island County and Coupeville resident Ian Jefferds, the recipient of the accidental permit, for breaking county regulations. They claim construction of a 5,000-square-foot home in the reserve is a violation of county code.

Moore claims there’s precedence for one arm of the county to bring suit against the county, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I’m optimistic that they will revisit this with Jefferds,” he said after the meeting.

Also, Planning Director Jeff Tate overruled the HRC on two other projects that the committee recommended that the county turn down. Moore even accused Commissioner Bakke of pressuring the planning director into approving a project that was clearly nonconforming because the builder was the commissioner’s friend — a man who held a fundraiser for Bakke, Moore said.

Moore claimed the county upheld the HRC’s decision for months and months, but then Tate reversed it after a closed-door meeting with Bakke and the applicant.

“That doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

Both Tate and Bakke have called the accusations ridiculous, but neither was available for comment. Tate was at meetings. Bakke was on vacation.

At the meeting, Tate said that the HRC has been overruled only two times in 15 years. The committee handled more than 100 applications each year. He said he knows he’ll “need to have a conversation” with the committee if such issues come up again.

In the midst of the controversy, Paula Spina, an outspoken member of the committee, held a rally at the Crockett Farm, the historic property she purchased five years ago. The purpose of the event was to pressure officials to rescind Jefferds’ permit and create more protection for the historic Central Whidbey area.

Afterward, the county commissioners tried to replace Spina on the committee, claiming that her term was up in August. According to Spina, Bakke tried to replace her with a local builder, but Commissioner John Dean convinced him to hold off. It’s very unusual, perhaps unheard of, for a member of a volunteer committee to be replaced against his or her will and against the will of the committee itself. Members of the HRC voted unanimously to keep Spina as a member.

Last Wednesday, the commissioners said they were seeking a legal opinion on Spina’s position. Spina was appointed in the beginning of the year to replace a member whose four-year term expired last month.

Spina claims the ordinance doesn’t allow the commissioners to remove her before she serves four years. A retired attorney, Spina said she’s willing to go to court to argue her point.

Of course, the commissioners could just vote to reappoint her.

Beyond the legal points, HRC members said the commissioners’ effort to remove Spina smacks of political retribution.

“All I want to do is protect the reserve and follow the ordinances,” Spina said.

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