Nearly 20 months, one short film, hundreds of petition signatures and a handful of devastating wildfires later, the residents of a tiny yet tenacious community in north-central Washington state can claim victory: a sleek, modernist cabin cantilevered on an undeveloped ridge over the village of Mazama like a “wart on the hillside” and an “extended third finger” must be relocated from its current view-busting site in the upper Methow Valley.
Earlier this week, Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Christopher E. Culp ruled in favor of plaintiffs, Steve and Kristin Devin, in a lawsuit alleging that the owners of the offending “ridgebuster” of a structure directly violated a view-protecting 1987 covenant requiring future owners of the parcel on Flagg Mountain “to minimize the visual impact of any structures on the Mazama community as a whole.”
Outside of the high-profile lawsuit which was originally filed in April 2013 by the Devins and several of the parcel’s original owners/covenant signers, incensed locals also found the modular hunting cabin to be in violation of the Methow Conservancy's “Good Neighbor Handbook,” which explicitly states that "ridgeline houses permanently mar the scenic beauty that many treasure in the Methow Valley.”
Writes Culp in his 21-page ruling on the trial, which took place over seven days this past August:
Defendants violated the Covenants by building the hut as and where they did. From plaintiff's property, especially the Mazama Ranch House, the hut cuts dramatically into the skyline. It does not attempt to blend with its surroundings: it is in stark and vivid contrast to anything around it. The hut could not have been built in a manner more insensitive to the visual minimizing goals of the Covenants. It is not necessary to the Court's ruling but the evidence suggests that the defendants used the hut and its location to make an architectural statement.
In conclusion, because Steve and Kristen Devin are intended third party beneficiaries, they are afforded the protections of the Covenants and they have standing to enforce them. Because the hut violates the Covenants, the Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs. Given plaintiff's prayer for relief, removal of the hut from its current location is the only remedy and the Court rules accordingly."
Although there were several defendants in the case, the one that’s garnered the most attention — and raised the most eyebrows — is the architect of the ridgeline-topping hut, Tom Kundig.
A co-owner of the property, Kundig is, ironically, best known for designing gorgeous private homes, mostly remote Pacific Northwest getaways, that meld seamlessly into the dramatic natural landscapes that surround them. As a principal and owner of Seattle-based architecture firm Olson Kundig, Kundig has won the National Design Award (2008) and been bestowed with enough American Institute of Architects National Awards to fill a decent-sized wall.
Last month, Olson Kundig, a trailblazer in the coffee table tome-friendly "tough luxe" aesthetic, received its first retrospective at the Kaneko gallery in Omaha, Neb. Recent Olson Kundig projects include an addition to the Tacoma Art Museum, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center, Seattle's Gethsemane Lutheran Church and the lauded mixed-use Art Stable project, also in Seattle.
It should be made clear that the lawsuit in Okanogan County didn't stem from an architectural witch-hunt and isn't a textbook case of "big-deal Seattle architect shakes things up in a rural outpost on the other side of the mountains." Many Mazama residents are admirers of Kundig's work. In fact, other pint-sized, Kundig-designed structures have peacefully existed in the Methow Valley for some time now — namely, a sextet of mobile rental cabins known as the Rolling Huts. The main attraction at an upscale pseudo-campground (think WiFi access meets composting toilets) located about 15 miles south of Mazama, the rustic-chic Rolling Huts, unlike the non-rolling hut that sparked the lawsuit, are located on the valley floor, not perched precariously on a ridgeline for all to see.
While Kundig and his award-winning firm have remained mum throughout the legal proceedings, co-defendant Jim Dow, a Seattle-based builder, has argued that the solar- and wind-powered rectangular hut was designed to peacefully co-exist with the natural landscape.
Reads a Dow-penned letter dated Jan. 9, 2013:
Tom Kundig designed this cabin with the valley’s natural elements and respect for its ecology, wildlife, history, and residents as a priority. His structure is intended to feel and act in the spirit of the valley’s traditions and history of agriculture, forestry, and ranching. All structural and building systems and aesthetics are rooted in a pragmatic, functional approach to the existing environment, embracing the beauty on its existing basis.
There’s no doubt that a ton of foresight and consideration went into design of the hut. Carefully executed and visually arresting, the low-impact dwelling is pure Kundig. However, in terms of siting, Kundig and his fellow co-defendants couldn’t have picked a more aggressively discordant locale.Tom ensured that the cabin would have a small footprint — both in size and environmental impact. To accomplish these objectives, he limited it to 850 square feet and made it highly energy efficient.
And although a world away from Mazama, a similar viewshed-in-peril struggle is underway in Malibu where U2 guitarist The Edge wants to build not one but five residences on an environmentally sensitive ridgeline facing the Pacific. While plans to move ahead with the neighbor-irking development were looking uncertain for a while, it appears that the project may indeed move forward.
Back in Washington, it's been a long — and costly — fight but the plaintiffs, along with a group of concerned Methow Valley residents who banded together to form the Move the Hut coalition, couldn’t be happier with Judge Culp’s decision.
Says Steve Devin in a press release issued by Move the Hut: “This is a win for our community of residents and visitors who saw the impact of the hut. I’m very gratified that our rights to protect this ridge were recognized and that the Court’s ruling upheld a private covenant placed on the property.”
Kathryn Hinsch, a Move the Hut volunteer who has owned land in Mazama with her husband since the early 1990s, eloquently sums up her own thoughts to MNN:
Many things in life are about what you can see. But environmental conservatism is about what you don't see — unsullied nature — and the work it takes to make sure the natural environment is not destroyed. Like graffiti on windows in New York, stopping one small hut on a pristine ridgeline in the Methow Valley is worth fighting for. I was delighted by the ruling because it showed that a community can band together and make a difference.
Here’s hoping that Kundig, Dow and Co. are able to move the hut without incident to a spot that’s less obtrusive; a location that fully respects not just the natural beauty of the upper Methow Valley but also the residents that live amongst it.
While the outrage over the hut’s positioning may strike some as a classic case of overwrought NIMBYism, if you’ve ever driven (or biked) along State Route 20 — the North Cascades Highway — through the heart of the Methow Valley you probably better understand the frustration and betrayal felt by those rallying against the viewshed-violating hut. It’s a place of stunning, largely unfettered beauty — an honest-to-goodness slice of paradise as only the Pacific Northwest knows how to serve it up — where even the smallest, most environmentally sensitive blot on the landscape can ruin it for everyone.
Related on MNN:
- 'Nature Framed': Chicken Point Cabin
- Tree-cutting order issued in Seattle-area squabble over blocked views
9 homes influenced by nature (and not always in a good way)