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Elk plaza withdraws application, while Holiday Inn receives variance

Developers of both the Elk Plaza and Holiday Inn Express projects were seeking height variances from Sequim’s Board of Adjustment, but the projects came to two very different endings. Both were tabled during the board’s Jan. 23 meeting until Feb. 6. During that time, Elk Plaza’s developers Karl Allen and John Rigg decided it would be best to withdraw their variance application.

The proposed Elk Plaza has for several months been heralded by the city as a perfect example of mixed-use development, which is a cornerstone of Sequim’s proposed town center sub-area plan. A mixed-use building is usually three stories — retail on the first floor, commercial and office space on the second and residential on the third.

According to the city code, no building can have a height beyond 35 feet without being granted a variance. Elk Plaza was seeking a variance to build up to 44 feet, 3 inches, although the project’s architect, Roy Hellwig, said the design could be shaved down to 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 Jan. 23 meeting.

Even the extra three feet, however, because it is considered “occupied space” requires a variance.

According to Allen, he and Rigg decided to withdraw the application because they’d already put too much money into the project without a guarantee of the design being accepted. It’s up in the air what will happen to the project.

The Board of Adjustment accepted the applicants’ withdrawal in a 3-0 vote with board member Troye Jarmuth recusing herself from the vote due to a conflict of interest.

The proposed Holiday Inn Express hotel was seeking a variance to build up to 45 feet, 9 inches. Working with the planning department, the hotel’s owners devised a plan that would create a public roof garden, covered elevator shaft and stairway as well as a small storage unit (described by city staff as a “penthouse”) and pavilion. The proposed hotel is located on a low-lying area of land along U.S. Highway 101 and those traveling on the highway would have a clear view of the Holiday Inn’s flat roof. The roof garden was created to mitigate that unattractive view.

According to Sequim city attorney Craig Ritchie, the city’s building code only allows a building to go up to 35 feet if that height is entirely occupied (as was the case with Elk Plaza) but if the space is unoccupied — for example a church steeple — a building is allowed to extend as high as 60 feet.

“The only issue I see after reading the code is that people are going to be up there,” said Ritchie. “They don’t need a variance, I think, if the public isn’t up there.”

Although there won’t be anyone living on the Holiday Inn roof or setting up a business, according to Ritchie, if the public or guests choose to visit the roof garden, this automatically makes it an occupied space.

“Is it occupied if there’s a wedding up there?” asked Jarmuth.

“Codes says it is,” answered Ritchie.

Looking at an aerial map of the proposed roof, Ritchie highlighted the planned pavilion as the only thing in the design requiring a variance.

“It’s interesting. If a person is standing underneath (the pavilion), it needs a variance. If a person isn’t standing underneath it, it doesn’t need a variance,” Ritchie said.

“We’ve spent over $200,000 in additional costs, and as an owner and hotel operator we won’t get that money back,” Bret Wirta, the property’s owner, said, “We wouldn’t necessarily do this project if the public couldn’t have access.”

In a 4-0 vote, the board granted the variance, although with restrictions. For one, although open to the public (when it’s open to hotel guests, that is), special events and meetings will not be held on the roof garden until the city council revises the city’s height restrictions. It is unsure when, if ever, the city council will revise any of the building codes. Second, food and beverages will not be served on the roof garden.

Jarmuth asked if the Board of Adjustment couldn’t draft a letter to the city council, requesting that they consider revising the code, but the idea was thrown out with board chairman Harry Gasnick saying that it wasn’t the board’s place.

“I deal with where the code is,” said Gasnick. “Not where it will be.”

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