About a half-hour west of Yakima, along South Fork Cowiche Creek, sits a rustic summer cabin that has attracted its share of attention in recent years.
The 800-square-foot mountain getaway has been a fixture for 30 years on Carol Mae’s 42-acre plot in the rugged terrain about 15 miles north of Tampico.
But, as far as Yakima County code enforcement officials are concerned, the cabin may not be allowed to stand. There’s no building permit on file and they’ve never conducted a safety inspection. No one can verify that the cabin is, in fact, legal.
Mae has been working with code enforcement officials for the past four years, hoping to resolve the situation without having to consider the most drastic of steps.
At the same time, the 76-year-old Yakima resident is preparing for the very real possibility that her wilderness vacation home may have to be demolished.
“I’ve spent so many years up there, and it’s a very special place to me,” said Mae, a former massage therapist who hosted a spiritual camp for at-risk youths on her property starting in the early 1990s. “I know it is structurally sound because it has withstood 30 winters. My cabin is sturdier than most, but now I may not be able to keep it.”
Mae and dozens of her neighbors built cabins on the outskirts of the Mount Rainier National Forest from 1973 to 1989 during a moratorium on building permits.
Mae and a contractor friend built her cabin in 1989. (Neither Mae nor the county have official record of a building permit.) A few years later, in 1992, the county began a formal review of the structures in the area.
Citing legal liability, code enforcement officials sought to perform a thorough examination of each structure because the moratorium hadn’t been adequately enforced over the previous two decades.
The county was looking to document any potential safety or health code violations, which led to a 1996 agreement with property owners that allowed the existing structures to stand as long as they were in compliance. Most of them filed permit applications with the county, paid an application fee and agreed to a standard safety inspection.
Some property owners remember the county agreeing to “grandfather in” structures that had been built during the moratorium, as long as they passed the safety inspection. (County officials say no one was grandfathered in; each property owner had to legally apply and meet the specifications.)
Code enforcement records show 36 inspections were completed in the South Fork Cowiche Creek area starting in May 1997.
But Mae’s was not one of them.
“There was a compromise agreement performed between the county and the property owners that would allow us to keep our properties as long as we agreed to submit to a safety inspection and pay a $50 fee, in lieu of a building permit,” said Shag Upchurch, a West Seattle resident who owns property along South Fork Cowiche Creek.
Upchurch built two structures, a hunting cabin and a sauna shed, near Mae’s property around the same time. He served on a steering committee formed in 1992 to address a series of complaints brought forth by the county.
“We came to a formal agreement as to what would be required of property owners, and the people who paid the fee and complied with the conditions of the agreement were grandfathered in,” Upchurch said. “It appears that Carol may not have been grandfathered in because she didn’t do the safety inspection. She may not have jumped through all of the hoops like I did.”
Started With A Complaint
Complicating matters for Mae, her property sits on a parcel adjacent to a section of land where construction occurred during the moratorium. Upchurch’s property resides in the designated parcel and his structures have passed the requisite inspections.
Code enforcement officials say they are willing to give Mae and her family some time to resolve the matter, even though her cabin sits outside the moratorium boundary. At the same time, the family must follow the provisions of the International Building Code when it comes to the safety and structural integrity of the cabin.
“We have tried to work with Carol, but we have never been allowed or invited on the property to complete an evaluation or inspection of the structure,” said John Walkenhauer, assistant building official for Yakima County. “As of right now, we have no recorded inspections for the parcel where her cabin is.”
Walkenhauer insists code enforcement officials are not singling out Mae.
Above all, the county says its primary objective is to ensure that all of the dwellings that are built on county land meet basic structural and safety requirements.
“We didn’t pick her out of a crowd; it just landed in our lap,” Walkenhauer said. “We received a complaint in 2013 and that’s how we got involved.”
Following up on a formal complaint filed by a nearby resident, code enforcement officials flagged Mae’s cabin for potential safety concerns.
With no building permit or safety inspection records on file, the county says it contacted Mae about the next steps she would need to take in order to bring the cabin into compliance.
One option would be to hire a structural engineer to evaluate the structure. Another would be to demolish the cabin — an idea that’s simply out of the question for Mae.
Mae said after the complaint was filed in 2013, she never received any mailings, certified or otherwise, from the county at her Cowiche address.
She said the first time she saw documentation of the official complaint about her cabin was when she went to the Assessor’s Office in late 2014.
Mae also has a personal letter from a former Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife official apologizing to Mae for some “unsubstantiated allegations” found in the original complaint.
After four years of uncertainty, she is relieved that there may now be a chance to save the cabin.
“We haven’t always seen eye to eye, but the last time I met with the county, they showed me they were willing to cooperate,” Mae said of a late February meeting with Walkenhauer and code enforcement official Janna Jackson. Mae’s friend, Kristi Wilbert, also has sat in on the meetings.
“They gave me a list of what I needed to do and presented me with some different options,” she added. “They would like to be invited out to inspect the property this spring and then we can bring out a structural engineer to certify the cabin. It is nice that they are willing to work with me now, because our previous conversations didn’t always go so well.”
‘A Spiritual Place’
Mae isn’t the only one who fears the cabin’s demise.
Her nephew, Josh Weaver, and his wife, Judy, recently moved to the Yakima Valley from Colorado and they want to preserve the mountain hideaway for themselves.
“We want to buy it and keep it in the family,” said Weaver, 42, who grew up in Yakima and spent time at the cabin when he was a youth. “We have the same respect for the land as my aunt does. She wanted it to be a place where people could grow, and she helped a lot of kids over the years. It’s a very spiritual place, and we’d like to carry that on.”
Judy Weaver recently started a job as a social worker with Casey Family Programs in Yakima, which got the couple thinking more seriously about buying Mae’s property, listed for $89,950.
“We were here last summer and told Carol that we might be interested,” said Josh Weaver, who works in the food and beverage industry. “She called us a couple weeks later and we started to look for job opportunities in Central Washington.”
Over the past few months, the Weavers also had a chance to meet with Yakima County code enforcement officials, and they now understand their options.
“First, we will need to get a stamp of approval from a structural engineer, but we will have to decide if that makes sense for us financially,” Weaver said. “The other option is to tear it down and salvage what we can. If it comes down to that, we can use the pieces to build something new. But obviously, we’d like to keep the cabin standing.”
The meeting also produced a financial resolution for Mae, who agreed to pay $234.75 to settle her balance with the county. With that issue behind her, Mae and her family can now focus on how to assess the cabin’s future viability.
The next step for the Weavers is to contract an engineer to evaluate the structural integrity of the foundation and the roof.
The cabin is under a Notice of Violation and Order to Correct, which requires the property owner to obtain valid building permits and complete inspections of the permits before the cabin can be legally used.
Under the order, no one is allowed to work on the cabin or stay there until the issues are resolved.
“Contracting with a structural engineer to complete an evaluation … would be a great starting point,” Walkenhauer said.
In addition, the Yakima County Building and Fire Safety Division must visit the site to verify that it meets basic fire- and life-safety components found in the International Building Code. These include smoke alarms and emergency escape routes.
“This is all done in the interest of public safety,” Walkenhauer said. “We need to provide a standard, and we don’t take that lightly. That’s why we file certificates of violation if there are any violations. Any future buyer needs to know if there is something amiss. We don’t make up these codes; the state adopts them from the International Building Code.”
Weaver said he will comply with all of the codes because he wants to do whatever he can to help preserve the cabin.
“I just want to buy the property because it will give my aunt one less thing to worry about,” Weaver said. “We don’t want it to fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t respect it like we do. And if we have to do something about the cabin, we want to control the demolition.”
If the cabin must be torn down, the Weavers would have to obtain a building permit from the county before they can construct a new, legal residence. But those decisions are still a long way off.
“We just want to move this thing forward at this point,” Weaver said. “We want to give my aunt some peace of mind and then we can decide what to do later on.”
Mae is still holding out hope that her mountain retreat will receive a clean bill of health so she and her friends can continue to enjoy the pristine wilderness of South Fork Cowiche Creek.
She said her most recent meeting with Walkenhauer and Jackson was productive.
“We’ve been going back and forth for years, but it sounds like we’re starting to come around to a solution that’s good for both of us,” Mae said.