Discussion of proposed variances halted until February

The Sequim Board of Adjustment works a lot like a zoning board. The members review proposed projects that in some way fail to comply with the city’s municipal code and after reviewing the proposal decide whether the project should be granted or denied a variance.

But the board was decidedly indecisive the evening of Jan. 23, tabling the two projects set before them, Elk Plaza and the Holiday Inn Express, until February. Appicants for both projects were requesting height variances. Under Sequim’s municipal code, buildings may not exceed 35 feet. Elk Plaza’s developers wish for a variance so the building might be raised to 44 feet, 3 inches, while the Holiday Inn Express is proposed at 45 feet, 9 inches.

Elk Plaza is a project of particular interest as it has served for the city’s planning department as the perfect example of mixed-use development, a major component of the city’s proposed town center sub-area plan.

“We were looking at doing this project and the sub-area plan at essentially the same time,” said city planner Dennis Lefevre.

As explained by the project’s architect, Roy Hellwig, the idea was to create a structure that “really belonged in the downtown,” but by creating a three-story building to fit the mixed-use model (commercial on the first floor, office space on the second and residential on the third) the project ended up being taller than 35 feet. If the plans were to exclude a covering for a stairway leading up to the roof, Hellwig said it still would come in at 38 feet.

“If you’re really pushing for a mixed-use, three-story, then 38 feet is about the best we can do,” said Hellwig.

During the project’s Jan. 23 public hearing before the Board of Adjustment, it seemed that no one in the audience outwardly disliked the project. In fact, there appeared to be resounding goodwill toward it.

“I think it would be just amazing to see this come to fruition,” said local storeowner Jeri Sanford.

Fellow downtown shop owner Rick Roberts echoed Sanford’s sentiments, “To take it down over a few feet one way or another, I think would be a shame.”

But some disagreed with the project for the very reason Elk Plaza was being put forth to the Board of Adjustment: It did not comply with Sequim’s code.

“I think this is a really beautiful project, but I’m afraid under the law this dog just won’t hunt,” said planning board commissioner Ted Miller.

In the city’s zoning code there is a chapter that states that the Board of Adjustment shall not authorize any variance unless certain criteria is met. Among the criteria, applicants must show that such a variance is necessary (example: building a house in a swamp, so you have to build it on stilts) and that the special conditions do not result from the action of the applicant. In other words, an applicant must prove they can’t go through with the project without a variance. Miller felt that Elk Plaza and the Holiday Inn Express had not shown any unnecessary hardship. They each could build within the 35 feet height limitations.

“I think it would be very bad to approve this simply because it was the plan the applicant chose to submit.”

Clallam County Fire District 3 Assistant Chief Roger Moeder said the fire district would not support a variance for either project because they both fell outside of the requirements of the municipal code. The district, Moeder said, has a ladder truck that can reach to 70 feet, so neither project proved a fire hazard.

Some residents, including Board of Adjustment member Bill Holbrook, felt that the city council should revise the city’s code to allow for 38-foot buildings rather than the board passing a variance.

“I believe we’re looking at a variance that could be debated by a court,” said board chairman Harry Gasnick, who also felt unsure about granting a variance.

Saying that he and co-owner Karl Allen already had put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the proposed project, Elk Plaza developer John Rigg asked the board to grant the variance.

“It’s an outdated code and we got stuck in the middle of it,” Rigg said.

In the end, the board tabled the project, recessing the public hearing. Out of the five members, only two were present for the hearing. Member Troye Jarmuth reclused herself from the hearing and vote and Mary Moore, who had been sworn in that night, left early, leaving Gasnick and Holbrook to vote. According to city attorney Craig Ritchie, a two-person board cannot vote unless it’s an emergency.

The board scheduled the Elk Plaza hearing to resume on Wednesday, Feb. 6, and Jarmuth returned for discussion of the Holiday Inn Express.

Holiday Inn, working with the Sequim planning department, had developed a plan that would provide a public roof garden. To meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, doing so requires an elevator. According to architect Dale Sweeney, even without a covered elevator shaft, the building would be over the 35-foot limit.

While Miller and others commended the look of the building, they again didn’t feel that a variance should be given since the applicants had shown no hardship that would prevent them from complying with the code.

“As long as the codes are there, I think they should be adhered to as much as possible,” said planning board commissioner Dick Foster.

Jarmuth wondered if approving the project wouldn’t prompt future developers to seek height variances themselves. She asked if the undeveloped property across the street would not some day try to one-up the Holiday Inn by building an even larger complex.

“That’s really hard for me to say, Troye, because there’s not even a structure proposed there. We work from project to project,” Lefevre answered, adding, “I don’t think this is going to open up a Pandora’s box as far as height variances are concerned.”

Like Elk Plaza, Holiday Inn’s proposal was tabled by the board until February. The board asked that Sweeney come back with more detailed graphics and plans of the project.

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