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County suspends effort to declare Center a historic district

The Islander who nominated Center as a historic district withdrew his request after King County officials told him the code the county uses to establish historic properties is apparently flawed and needs to be amended.

Duane Dietz, an Islander with a deep interest in historic preservation, withdrew the nomination Friday. Without a local champion for the proposal, officials in the county’s Historic Preservation Program have decided not to move forward on the nomination on their own, thereby ending what had become a contentious issue on the Island.

“We wait for communities to bring nominations to us,” said Julie Koler, the county’s preservation officer. “If someone else were to resubmit it, absolutely we’d pick it up again.”

At the same time, she said, Dietz’s decision gives county officials the time they need to go through the legislative process without a controversial designation hanging in the balance and make sure a code they’ve been using for the past 30 years remains solid.

“It’s a prudent decision,” Koler said.

Opponents of the designation, meanwhile, cheered the news.

“I think that was the best decision, all things considered,” said Jim Stewart, who owns the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie building. “I’m glad to have the issue put to rest.”

“I’m basically glad it’s over,” added Bob Seibold, a property owner in the proposed district who was torn over the designation nomination. “It does simplify things a bit.”

The effort to get Center nominated as a historic district began earlier this year, when Dietz submitted to the county’s historic preservation office a 40-page analysis of the crossroads and its historic significance. According to the county office, the four-way intersection is one of the most historic crossroads remaining in the county, a region that has seen rapid growth over the last few decades. The preservation office endorsed the nomination in a staff report submitted to the King County Landmarks Commission, the eight-member panel that approves such designations.

Dietz had talked to some of the property owners in the area, he said in an earlier interview, and believed they supported the nomination. But local support for the proposal apparently eroded as the nomination process moved forward, and last month, when the landmarks commission came to Vashon to hold a hearing about it, commissioners faced a standing-room-only crowd packed with opponents.

Many of the opponents were there in support of Vashon Allied Arts’ effort to build a new performing arts center at the intersection. Some said they believed the nomination was a veiled attempt to put another stumbling block before the ambitious project — an accusation Dietz denies.

At the same time, a lawyer for VAA who attended last month’s hearing questioned the way the commission has applied the ordinance that establishes criteria for historic designations.

That ordinance, crafted 30 years ago and modeled after a federal law used by the National Park Service, lists several aspects of historic integrity a building or district needs to possess — including design, setting, materials and workmanship — before it can be designated. The county has long maintained that not every aspect needs to be met; in fact, Koler says, few structures could ever be listed as historic if they needed to meet all the criteria.

But Kristine Wilson, a lawyer with Perkins Coie, said the commission is misreading its own ordinance; the way the law is drafted, she said at last month’s meeting, all the criteria have to be met before a designation can move forward. She submitted a letter to that effect, as well.

At the hearing, commissioners said they would seek legal advice from the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Last week, Koler said, the county’s lawyer got back to the commission with his analysis, and while he disagreed with Wilson’s interpretation, he said the ordinance’s language is ambiguous. The county will now go to the county council and seek an amendment clarifying the law.

“We need to make sure we have the baseline process secured,” Koler said.

Dietz’s withdrawal of his nomination, she added, “gives the commission time to pursue the code clarification through the legislative process.”

Dietz, reached Friday, said little about his decision, noting only that he’s found the controversy over his effort painful. “It’s not been a pleasant experience. … I did not anticipate the politics behind this at all,” he said.

Others expressed disappointment with the process and VAA’s role in the contentious issue.

Roy McMakin, a property owner within the proposed district who supports the designation, said he believes VAA overstepped its bounds by raising questions about the historic preservation ordinance.

“To try to undermine an important historic resource for our region by parsing the wording is, I think, playing with fire. … The whole thing is kind of disgusting,” he said.

Donna Klemka, a community leader who spoke in favor of the nomination at the hearing, expressed similar sentiments.

“I think it’s a shame that in their interest of pursuing their project, VAA has thrown a stone at the whole county program,” she said.

But VAA board member Susan Kutscher said VAA was simply trying to “stand with our neighbors” by raising questions and concerns about the proposed designation.

“Most of our neighbors were opposed to it. If people want to landmark their property, that’s wonderful. We were supporting the majority of our neighbors who were against it,” she said.

Both Kutscher and Anne O’Leary, chair of the VAA board, said the designation — had it gone through — would not have had a legal or regulatory impact on VAA’s project, since the organization has already filed for a permit; the project, as a result, is already vested. But the issue was a tricky one for VAA, O’Leary said, because of the impact it could have on fundraising.

“Some people didn’t want to be perceived as being against historic preservation by supporting our project,” she said.

What’s more, if VAA is unable to break ground before the permit expires and Center were designated, VAA would need to begin the process over again within the context of a historic district. “That would have come at a huge expense to us,” she said.

 

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