PORT ANGELES — A lawsuit against Clallam County and its elected community development director is stalling progress on addressing bed and breakfast regulations in the county.
Mary Ellen Winborn, director of the county Department of Community Development, told Clallam County commissioners Monday she does not want to put herself at risk for more liability by discussing or changing bed and breakfast regulations before the federal lawsuit against her and the county is resolved.
“We’re willing to do it; it’s just that in the meantime there is a lawsuit that has been filed and it has my name on it and Clallam County on it,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to move forward until that’s resolved.”
She said her experience has been that anything she says could be used against her.
“I am a low risk-taker when it comes to things like that,” she said.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma in December, Judy Lee of California alleges Winborn has worked to thwart her plans to build her dream home — a 32,000 square-foot, four-story “bed and breakfast” that features five bedrooms and 27 bathrooms — along the banks of Sequim Bay.
She purchased 5 acres at 695 E. Sequim Bay Road in 2016 to “make her home into an attractive bed and breakfast to allow others to enjoy the area,” according to the lawsuit.
Lee asserts her application is for a bed and breakfast within a single family residence while the county has determined the application is for a hotel, a prohibited use in the zone where the parcel is located.
It would be larger than the Quality Inn & Suites in Sequim and the new Clallam County Public Utility District headquarters in Carlsborg.
Lee and her attorneys have argued the building should be classified as a lodging house regulated by the International Residential Code, but the Clallam County Building Code Board of Appeals decided in 2016 it should be regulated under the International Building Code.
Boarding houses and other structures that fall under the International Building Code are required to have more safety features than buildings regulated by the residential code.
A letter from the International Code Council in 2016 said that while the plans show only five rental bedrooms, other rooms designated as family bedrooms could possibly be rented.
The ICC noted several issues, including the need for horizontal and vertical fire-resistance separation between sleeping units, smoke control, exit stairs from each story and accessibility for people with physical disabilities.
The lawsuit claims Winborn “may have improperly influenced or tried to skew how the International Code Council should be interpreted to suit her desires.”
In the county’s response to the lawsuit, filed in February, it asks the judge to dismiss all claims in the lawsuit and for the county and Winborn to be awarded their costs, including reasonable attorneys’ fees.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle ordered the four-day jury trial set for 9 a.m. March 12, 2019.
Clallam County Commissioner Bill Peach said Monday he is hearing from members of the public who want the county to follow through on its commitment to host public meetings in Forks, Port Angeles and Sequim on the issues of bed and breakfasts.
He said rather than addressing all the regulations regarding bed and breakfasts at once, he suggested that the county look now only at expanding the number of rooms allowed from five to eight and addressing other issues later.
“Let’s deal with one core issue and that’s the number of rooms,” he said. “We heard a lot of good comment and a lot of recurring comment was a move from five to eight.”
Winborn said her department has been focused on five rooms and the idea of expanding to eight had come up only recently. She said she was willing to discuss the number of rooms, but said she didn’t want to open herself up to additional liability in the lawsuit.
Peach said he had talked with officials in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, who believed that the county addressing the number of rooms allowed would not affect the lawsuit.
“My name is on it,” she said. “I’m being sued individually. I’d put anybody in my shoes.”
Commissioner Mark Ozias cautioned that no one from the prosecuting attorney’s office was at the work session and said he didn’t want to talk too in depth about the issue.
“I can understand your desire to be careful about what we’re talking about,” Ozias told Winborn.
Ozias said he didn’t feel comfortable with the thought of making regulatory changes without Winborn completely on board. He emphasized that Winborn was elected to her position.
“What that means to me personally as a single individual commissioner is that I think that means that I owe great deference to the director of community development with regard to ordinance changes as it relates to what we’re talking about here,” he said.
“Based on my interpretation of our charter and the history of our electorate, I don’t view that as something that’s appropriate for us.”
Ozias recommended the issue be discussed during an executive session and for county officials to find a way to move the issue forward without risking any more liability.
That executive session had not been scheduled as of Wednesday.
Winborn said without changes to the rules, it is possible to work with bed and breakfast owners on ways to expand their businesses, something she would be willing to do while the lawsuit moves forward.
“I’m willing to work with individual owners,” she said. “Given certain circumstances, we can do something to help them.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].