MAZAMA, Wash. -- It showed up almost overnight; a so-called hunting cabin that locals say looms over their peaceful valley.
"It" is the inspiration of a Seattle architect with a history of bending the rules. Now the controversy over the cabin has turned into a pitched battle over protecting the pristine ridgeline above the small town of Mazama.
You might call the Methow River the living heart of the town of Mazama. The snow-capped mountains and wild ridgelines above the Methow Valley form the backbone for a peaceful community that considers natural beauty the area's greatest wealth.
"I think most of the people who live here, live here because of the beauty of the place," said resident Scott Johnson.
That natural beauty is also the wellspring for much of the area's income. Kristin Devin and her husband run one of several rustic-themed hotels in Mazama.
"And because tourism is so important to us, aesthetics is everything," she said.
'It was like, up yours, Mazama'
But in late summer of 2012 with virtually no warning, "boom! There it was!" says Midge Cross, describing what happened in under a week on the ridgeline above the home she built with Scott Johnson.
At first, she and Johnson had no idea what it was. No one in the valley really knew.
Perched hundreds of feet above the valley floor stood a rectangular structure built of steel and concrete; the outer edge balanced on a single pier driven into the top of Flagg Mountain. And with a little digging, the folks in Mazama learned it was built as a hunting cabin.
"To me it was the extended third finger," says Cross, "like, 'up yours Mazama, we can put this here and the heck with you guys!' "
It is the inspiration of Seattle architect Tom Kundig and the result of a partnership between Kundig and builders Jim Dow and Ben Rand. Okanogan County issued a permit for an 850 square foot hunting cabin with no heat and no plumbing. It can only be occupied 60 days a year.
While county building codes allow the structure, prior owners of the ridgetop, including Kristin Devin and John Hayes, signed a property covenant - a legal agreement they say prevents building anything that can be seen from the valley below.
Devin is certain the covenant prevents building the structure where it stands.
"It's totally in violation of what we thought we were going to have there," she said.
'They didn't do this out of ignorance'
Devin says she tried to talk to the partners building the Kundig design when they were just placing the concrete base, "and the partner was just so excited about this cool project that he really wasn't hearing me." Devin says she tried to tell him three different ways that they couldn't put the structure up there, "and he just did not acknowledge that I was telling him that he was in violation."
The original signers of the covenant followed up with a letter stating their position. "The covenant is clear," says former owner Hayes. He says nothing swayed the owners: "They didn't do this out of ignorance."
The group, with the support of the Mazama community, is now suing; a last resort for an area that prefers to live and let live.
"Unfortunately they haven't really left us any choice," says Pope, "because they haven't really been willing to sit down and discuss some sort of middle ground."
History of pushing envelope of building codes
Builder Kundig has a national reputation for producing cutting edge designs using steel, concrete and glass. KOMO TV made several requests to interview Kundig by e-mail, on the phone and in person at his Pioneer Square offices. We also wanted to ask him about his reputation for pushing the envelope for local building codes. But Kundig declined all our requests for an interview.
So we turned to the video of a 2009 Architectural Conference, now online, in which Kundig talked about how he works. Kundig designed several steel cabin-like structures that he calls the Rolling Huts, for a property further down the Methow Valley.
On the video, he says: "And we discovered that the local code authorities wouldn't allow us to put anything like that on the site."
So Kundig describes that although the huts aren't really mobile, by putting them on steel wheels they got around Okanogan County requirements. Again talking at the conference, "but it was pretty clearly a strict, sort of unfortunate adherence to local code and we tried to find a way around it."
At the same conference, he references a home he designed up in the San Juans. "And the local building design committee had told us that we pushed it too close to the edge of the cliff - ridiculous."
So his solution? Make the deck movable -- the outermost section sliding beneath the section of deck closest to the house. "So when the committee shows up, we actually just put the deck away...and when they leave, the deck can kind of come back out."
Mazama homeowner Scott Johnson says Kundig has "a clear history of having pulled off things like this in the past, and now he and other Mazama residents believe Kundig and partners are trying the same thing here, by ignoring the covenant and putting up the cabin before anyone had a chance to object.
"I was really shocked, shocked that someone could do that," he said.
The Mazama community has formed a group called, "Move the Hut," to persuade Kundig to move the Hut back on the property so it can't be seen from below. So far that group has not been successful, so the cabin owners and the people of Mazama are locked in a court battle they believe will determine the future of development in the Methow Valley.
Trial is set for Aug. 12.
Following the broadcast of this story, Olson Kundig Architects gave this response:
"The owners of the Flagg Mountain hut and Olson Kundig Architects have remained steadfast in their belief that it would be more respectful of the legal process and Methow Valley community if they didn’t communicate with the media until this case is resolved. As a result, KOMO-TV ran a story on July 21 that unjustly presented only one side of the story. The owners and Olson Kundig Architects welcome the opportunity to discuss their position after the court has made its decision."