A conversation with Mary Ellen Winborn
By Lizzie North
Twenty-two years ago, local architect Mary Ellen Winborn and her husband Joel chose Port Angeles as the place they wanted to live and raise their family. Now, with both children grown, Winborn is eager to use her skills and experience to Clallam County, running for Director of Community Development.
Winborn took time to discuss the Director of Community Development position at her home, which is now campaign headquarters as well as her company’s office.
Already it’s a learning process. “As I was painting signs, I was wondering, ‘what does this have to do with being the Director of Community Development?’ And then I decided, at least this shows that I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
“Most people don’t realize the significance of this position,” Winborn says. “It’s bigger than a city planner: You work with city planners. It’s bigger than a county planner. You’re responsible for long range planning for our natural resources, for the overall health of our environment.”
Observing “so many missed opportunities for our community’’ motivated her to throw her hat in the ring.
“Most people didn’t realize they were voting on the health of building within the constraints of our environment” when the Director of Community Development position became an elective office.
Long-range planning involves the upcoming comprehensive plan as well as issues ranging from septic systems to the impact of Dungeness water rules on building permits in Sequim,” Winborn says.
Typically, residents encounter this office when applying for a building permit. People often worry about being turned down, or being told “No, you can’t do that.” But issuing building permits is only “a small, front office part of the job,” Winborn says.
An important first step with any design, before considering a permit application, is to find out what hazards may exist. Is there an eagle habitat? Shoreline issues? Shifting bluffs or fragile wetlands? Good designs come from knowing what problems may be encountered before even beginning the permit process.
While you can go to the office website and click to download a building application, no one is overseeing the kind of long- range zoning restrictions required to protect our natural resources as a healthy environment for all residents, Winborn says.
Instead of thoughtful consideration, the office relies on issuing conditional use permits, she says. Hiring a professional plans examiner, “someone with the skills to evaluate alternatives beyond word-searching the building codes,” would expand ways for our communities to find creative solutions.
“Telling people ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ discourages professionals trying to do their best on a job,” she adds.
Where would Winborn like to start making changes?
“We need to look at our communities with fresh eyes and recognize that what you see now is not going to impress you if you’re looking for a place to relocate or a place to launch a new business.”
Winborn notes that for an architect, the “big picture” view comes naturally. Every project needs to fit in and work well with its neighbors and its environment. Good design starts from the bottom up. To produce results that serve the goals of the clients and the interests of their communities, an architect has to coordinate with workers, professionals, skilled craftsmen and suppliers.
“Besides,” Winborn says, “when you design and build in your own community, you face the quality of your work every day; you’re critiquing solutions and evaluating changes for the next 20 years whenever you walk or drive past.”
Soft-spoken, she’s an admitted introvert whose speech still echoes her New Orleans roots. This is her first election campaign.
She laughs when asked what books are on her nightstand. “Well, there’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – although I learn a lot more from people than from any book.”
Another book is older: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jean Jacobs, “who first took a look at what makes a city vibrant,” Winborn says. “It takes years for something to change and it’s important to know its source. ”
“Local is where you can really make a difference,” says Winborn.
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