The dirt road up Flagg Mountain is not for the fainthearted—or the low-clearance car. It is steep and narrow, with hairpin turns snaking through woods and scrub. But the views at the top are more than worth the teeth-chattering drive: The craggy peaks of the North Cascades fan off to the west, and the Methow River meanders through a valley of meadows and pines. The majority of the land is publicly owned and undeveloped. Birdsong, chipmunk chirps and the wind in the trees are the only noises. It should be the most serene place in the world.
But a 1,300-square-foot cabin cantilevered over the valley takes in the view in giant gulps. Built in the fall of 2012, the simple pine box, shaped like a shipping container with a dramatic floating metal roof held aloft by a central steel column, is the focus of a classic conflict between hilltop dwellers versus valley residents. Only, this kerfuffle is magnified by the presence of a star architect on the hill and a community of seasoned activists in the valley.
The cabin is the first private structure on any ridgeline around Mazama, a small town (intersection, really) at the eastern base of the North Cascades Pass. To appreciate what that means, one need only travel about 15 miles farther east on Highway 20 into the Winthrop area, where the valley opens out onto ranches and scrubland, and houses dot many hilltops. It’s a completely different feeling—still beautiful but decidedly developed.
Critics of the cabin argue that the Flagg Mountain structure sets a precedent for additional ridgeline homes in Mazama. Previous landowners claim it actually breaks the law. In 1987, they drafted legally binding covenants on the parcel that require any improvements be placed “with constraint and special sensitivity” to “minimize visual impact” on adjoining parcels and lands “on the floor of the Methow Valley.”
“You have managed to erect a structure that is the exact embodiment of what we were seeking to prohibit,” they wrote in an early letter to the cabin’s owners.
And therein lies some of the rub: the owners. They are not longtime valley residents or your average Seattle professionals with a second home here. They are high-profile homebuilder Jim Dow, the managing partner at Schuchart/Dow in Seattle, and the internationally famous architect Tom Kundig, along with his wife and another friend. Well known in the valley for his distinctive Rolling Huts on Highway 20, Kundig creates the sort of iconic buildings have earned him a long list of honors.
Dow did not return calls requesting an interview, and Kundig, through a spokesperson, said he would not speak on the record, citing the pending litigation. But in an early response to criticism, Dow registered sadness and disappointment. He said he and his co-owners had worked with their immediate neighbors on situating the cabin to protect the views from adjacent lots, which includes one cabin (set back off the ridgeline), and he laid out his argument for the ways in which the cabin is in sync with Methow Valley values. He cited its small footprint; because it is suspended, it touches the land in only two places. He noted that it was built primarily with wood from trees killed by bark beetles, that it is off the grid—using solar and wind power and water collection—and that the exterior will be finished with the natural process of shou sugi ban, a wood-scorching technique that, he wrote, “harmonizes and blends with the natural surroundings.”
“But they didn’t mention the location,” says Steve Devin, a previous owner of the Flagg Mountain parcel, covenant author and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It isn’t just up there; it is cantilevered out over the cliff. It’s not something someone would do who is trying blend in.”
That sense of outrage began when the cabin first appeared. Devin, who has spent most of his life in the Methow and owns a ranch on Highway 20 as well as the Mazama Ranch House, knew some Seattleites were building on his old lot and heard construction noise drifting into the valley last fall. But it wasn’t until he came back from vacation in November that he saw “the hut,” which is how opponents refer to the cabin. Even for people who hadn’t been on vacation, “The hut seemed to appear out of nowhere,” says Bill Pope, who owns the Mazama Country Inn. The cabin was built and then lifted into place—an inauspiciously stealthy introduction.
Like a scene out of a Capra movie, unhappy residents crowded into the Mazama Community Center, which sits at the edge of a meadow just under “the hut.” Letters were written, but, according to the plaintiffs, the owners would not engage in meaningful dialogue. So a lawsuit was filed in April. Work proceeded on the cabin, and the defendants filed motions to dismiss the case on the basis that only adjacent landowners can enforce the covenants (four of the six plaintiffs have been dismissed). Tensions simmered in the valley. move the hut! stickers popped up on bumpers and car-roof boxes around town; an online petition gained 700 signatures (in a valley of only several thousand residents); events, such as a “Shake Your Butt to Move the Hut” party, raised awareness; and opponents have raised approximately $75,000 to cover legal fees.
“The issue comes down to ridgeline development and the impact it has on not only the people who live in the valley, but the thousands who visit,” says Pope, who organized the ad hoc committee to move the hut and the website MovetheHut.org. The plaintiffs believe the cabin can be moved back off the ridge—without compromising the mountaintop views and preserving the view from below.
“There’s a lot depending on covenants and restrictions to stand up,” says Dave Bricklin of Bricklin & Newman, an environmental law firm in Seattle and Spokane. Bricklin, who is representing the hut opponents in the lawsuit, helped residents in their successful fight against a proposed ski resort in the area in the 1980s, in a case that lasted decades and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. “There’s not a lot of zoning in the valley that protects public amenities; covenants are attempts to impose private zoning.”
Cabin critics argue that more than views hang in the balance—including the ability of owners to enforce covenants and, in sort of a doomsday scenario, by extension the enforceability of things like conservation easements. Them’s fighting words in the part of the upper valley where easements and covenants restricting development have been very effective in preserving a rural, even wild, feeling. Jason Paulsen, executive director of the Methow Conservancy, says he doesn’t think conservation easements would be put at risk if the Flagg Mountain covenant can’t force the owners to move the cabin out of sight. But he does agree that development on the ridgeline goes against the community’s will and the conservancy’s Good Neighbor Handbook, which contains suggestions for local landowners.
In an early story in the Methow Valley News about the cabin, Dow is quoted as saying that new projects often generate negative reactions when they first appear, which can change over time. He suggests that residents “hang in there and wait until we’re finished. Then come up and have a beer.”
That looks pretty unlikely at this point. Beyond the legal question of covenants (which, if the case moves forward, could be decided by a judge this summer), the thing that seems to stick in Mazamites’ craw is their sense that the cabin owners—Kundig, in particular—have enough prestige and money to thumb their noses at their neighbors. As Devin puts it, “If you have resources, sometimes you get to live by a different set of rules.”
That sentiment also surfaces in a short documentary by Katie Turinski, a Portland-based documentary filmmaker, who chose the controversy as a subject during a filmmaking workshop in the valley this summer. She has one particularly telling bit of video: Kundig lecturing what appears to be an architecture class in 2009. Dressed in a black T-shirt and black blazer, he describes the process of building his celebrated Rolling Huts on a meadow zoned for camping. To keep within the letter, if not the spirit, of the law, Kundig poised the box-shaped cabins on enormous steel wheels.
“We discovered if the building is on wheels, it doesn’t need a building permit,” he says. “So we just went ahead and started building these things; had the code authorities all worked up.” Then he tells the prospective architects that they shouldn’t break the law, although he tried to find a way around it. “There were some people in the county who thought it was funnier than heck and others that didn’t think it was that funny.”