by Richard Uhlhorn
On Thursday, January 26, Chelan County Commissioner Tiffany Gearing hosted an afternoon meeting at Chelan’s Fire Station for residents interested in hearing from County law enforcement personnel about changes within the department.
However, after remarking on issues the commissioners are facing in the County including the recent proposal to reintroduce 200 grizzly bears to the North Cascade National Park, the washed out road to Cottonwood in the Stehekin Valley, removal of woody debris from Lake Chelan and the use of the County’s lodging tax receipts that now total $3.4 million In reserves, Gearing was confronted by Karma Vineyard’s Julie Pittsinger over a long standing battle with the County Planning Department to gain a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to continue operating their 16 Brix Restaurant at their winery.
Pittsinger opened her remarks noting that she is dumbfounded at the County’s inaction on the permitting problems facing Karma.
“You said you loved Karma and after a two and a half hour meeting, you said ‘I will do whatever I can to help you.’ It’s now four years later,” said Pittsinger.
The issues between Karma and the County are administrative at best, but have cost both hundreds of thousands of dollars so far.
With the restaurant at the Winery officially closed down, the Pittsinger’s in an effort to retain its long standing staff, went looking for another opportunity and found it the Chelan Golf Course. They entered into a concessionaire contract Counties with the City to renovate and operate its Golf Course restaurant at a promised cost of $345,000 over a two-year period.
Under a new business, Karma opened Albatross LLC and is now operating. This year, as a part of their promise of spending $345,000, the downstairs banquet room and restrooms will also be renovated at an estimated cost of $250,000.
The County’s latest issue to hit Karma Vineyards is a Fire Marshall directing Karma to install a $300,000 fire system in their Cave. “It puts us out of business,” said Pittsinger. After no response from the County on any of the thousands of letters and emails, Pittsinger told Gearing that she asked her to uphold a settlement that was reached.
Gearing replied, “Julie, I consider you a friend. The reason I haven’t responded is because of the lawsuit. I’m not allowed to comment while we are in litigation.” Gearing stated that she had no idea a settlement wasn’t reached. “The last I heard, we had a settlement. We don’t want to shut down small businesses. I will go and talk to our lawyer.” She promised to get back to the Pittsingers by February 1.
A number of locals also attended the meeting in support of Karma in the standing room only meeting.
Brett Pittsinger added the issues should have been resolved without litigation. He told Gearing, “You have the power to make the change.”
A Google search brought up a number of insights into the issues facing Karma and five other litigants suing the County for obstructive and unnecessary delays in the permitting process.
On February 19, 2021, the Wenatchee World printed an opinion piece that the Chelan County Community Development Department was broken. Over the years, the department has had numerous turnovers of both staff and management which has made the department’s leadership ineffective.
Karma Vineyards was issued its first appropriate CUP on August 19, 2005 to operate as a winery. Chelan County Commissioners then amended the “winery regulations” to include on-site food preparation, services and consumption.
In 2011 the County Code Compliance Officer informed Karma that it was not authorized to operate a restaurant. Then in March of 2013, Karma received approval and the restaurant operated from 2012 to 2017. Then the County’s Code Enforcement Officer once again claimed that Karma was out of compliance with over three unsatisfied conditions.
Karma addressed these but the County required them to obtain new Conditional Use Permits. Chelan County Hearing Examiner stated in his findings that that a restaurant CUP has never been allowed.
Karma provided a LUPA petition (Land Use Petition Act) to provide uniform and expedited judicial review of land use decisions made by counties, cities and unincorporated towns.
The battle continues and it will be interesting to see what Gearing comes back with on February 1.