WINTHROP, Okanogan County - A winter snowfall has visited the Methow Valley, a shimmering white blanketing lush golden grasses, Ponderosa pines and crisply printed "For Sale" signs that have popped up like prairie dogs on the valley floor.
Instead of snowy silence, the pings and whirrs of hammers and drills echo across the fields as workers buzz around half-complete new homes, hoping to finish work outside before temperatures take a serious dive.
At first glance, it appears that a large part of the valley between Winthrop and Mazama is being built upon or is for sale. Builders talk about a "boom" that now supports 13 real-estate offices and provides steady employment for skilled carpenters and high-end homebuilders. Last year, in a sure sign of the times, Coldwell Banker and Windermere opened real-estate offices in the valley.
"It's just gone nuts," says contractor Jeff Brown. "It's just crazy. You can't even get a contractor right now."
Sam Sanford, another builder, employs 14 people, and has had to turn down work, something rarely done in this sparsely populated valley just east of the North Cascades. "It used to be that in the wintertime, it would slow down. But for the last two years, it hasn't slowed down."
There are not only more houses, but much bigger houses - vacation homes with price tags of $250,000 or more, hot tubs, saunas and swimming pools, even luxury features such as radiant-heat floors or custom-milled floors and woodwork. Some newer "ranches" run to 6,000-plus square feet, roughly triple a standard family home. One home under construction will have 12,000 square feet with detached guest house, office and storage buildings.
Those paying these considerable bills, builders say, include software-company millionaires, solitude-seeking boomers with spare change, and retirees with an environmental consciousness and a cross-country skiing habit.
"We've got some heavy hitters," says Sanford. "Most of them are from Seattle, not here full time, and most of them pay cash."
The alchemy changing the Methow began with a mix of demographics, timing, geography - and a good scare thrown into folks two decades ago.
The resulting gold has an appealing gleam: There's protection for open space, wildlife and environmental ideals, while land values, tourism and vacation-home ownership all grow.
But an influx of well-heeled newcomers isn't everybody's favorite future, and battles still loom in this once-sleepy little valley.
PRESERVATION PROVES PRICEY
Until 1972, when the North Cascades Highway opened, the Methow Valley remained a sort of Shangri-La. A long drive over Stevens Pass and several more hours to reach the upper valley discouraged all but the most intrepid.
These days, except during Highway 20's winter closures, visitors from the west side can quickly drop down into what feels like a different world: "the Methow." From the colder country north of Mazama, down through the mountain-biking mecca of Winthrop and past the whistle-stop town of Twisp, the cobblestone-strewn Methow River lazes through wide, flat fields bordered by Ponderosa pine and high, rolling hills. Panoramic views and breathtaking sunsets routinely dazzle visitors.
By the beginning of the 1970s, beauty was about all the valley had left. Most meaningful employment had evaporated as mining, logging and sawmills shut down; agriculture was virtually nonexistent. Tourism looked like the last, best hope, although not everyone was thrilled about the prospect.
Ultimately, it was a proposal for a giant ski resort that brought ranchers, farmers, "hippie" newcomers and environmental activists to common ground.
The Aspen Ski Corp. envisioned its Early Winters development as a world-class downhill-ski resort with 4,200 condominiums on 1,200 acres high in the valley.
Locals and environmentalists envisioned being overrun by apres-ski hordes.
The proposal galvanized the region. Environmental concerns eventually killed Early Winters, and zoning changes were made that today generally restrict single-family residences to 5-acre sites on the valley floor or 20 acres in the hills.
With a finite supply of land, there's no surprise in what happened to prices.
"When we came from Colorado 20 years ago, we wondered if the stuff was radioactive, it was so cheap," says John Hayes, a land-use planner and consultant who works out of Mazama. Now, he says, "the value of land around here is astronomical."
That's all relative, of course. The Methow isn't Hunts Point, and employment opportunities in Winthrop, population 375, or Mazama, population 150, are still limited. Today, a nice 5-acre parcel on the valley floor along one of the various rivers might set you back $135,000 or $145,000. Twenty years ago, the same 5 acres might have cost less than one-tenth of that.
"The upper valley demographics have changed because of the zoning, which is restrictive, and the topography, which is also restrictive," says Sanford. "Between zoning and topography, you have basically a high-rent district. There's very little land you can build on, and what you can build on, the chunks have to be pretty big."
That equation equals wealthier buyers from the Puget Sound area, many drawn by the focus on environment and nature that permeates the valley's consciousness, says Hayes. Urban refugees are welcomed with printed handouts such as "Living with Deer in the Methow."
Two major open-space deals helped to cinch the valley's direction. One was the creation, over more than a decade, of what is now a 108-mile groomed cross-country ski-trail system, one of the largest in the country. Included is a nearly-complete year-round community trail wending through private and public lands from Mazama to Winthrop.
In the other land deal, Hayes convinced the state that the 863-acre Big Valley Ranch, instead of being sold for condos, should be purchased as a wildlife preserve. In 1991, for $5.5 million, it was, and Hayes was convinced he'd saved the heart and soul of the valley.
`BEGINNING OF THE END'?
Not everyone thinks the last battle has been fought.
The former Early Winters site is now owned by Seattle interests with a scaled-down development proposal. The new plan, called the Arrowleaf Resort, is being proposed by Harbor Properties (an enterprise controlled by Stimson Bullitt of the KING Broadcasting founding family) and R.D. Merrill Co., a family-owned holding company run by Charles Wright III, the son of former Harbor board member Bagley Wright, one of the developers of the Space Needle.
The owners dropped the downhill ski resort and have agreed to help fund an environmental center, while proposing as many as 630 homes, a 120-room lodge and conference center, a golf course and a helicopter skiing outlet. The company already is developing the 74-acre Wilson Ranch property, where it built the lodge-style Freestone Inn last year. It plans to build and renovate rental cabins and add rooms to the lodge.
Hayes is among those who argue that it's better to have one big building project, such as Arrowleaf, than lots of little ones on the same land. "If it's cut up, there will be no control," he laments. "With individuals, every one would have their own 5-acre parcel, their own fence, their own barking dog, their own colored roof."
Wright says Arrowleaf has agreed to countless concessions on environmental issues. "We're not going to go in and trash the place," he says. "We're a family that has a presence here - this is our own back yard."
But opponents aren't convinced. David "Mac" Shelton, a Seattle lawyer and valley-property owner who belongs to the Methow Valley Citizens Council, which opposes Arrowleaf's proposal, says the scale is simply too large. "People don't want a piece of Puget Sound suburbia to be brought down in a package and crammed into this little fragile mountain valley floor," he says.
In the latest development, a Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month that the company's environmental-impact statement was incomplete. The issue - water quality and quantity - is a sensitive one in the valley, assuring that the fight could be in court for a while.
The project fuels fears that have smoldered since the Early Winters days. Mazama residents worry that fast-food franchises and gas stations will be attracted to the area.
"It's just the beginning of the end when that happens," says Mary Sharman, a graphic artist who works at the Mazama Country Store.
Elsewhere in generally conservative Okanogan County, such talk, along with things like taking 863 perfectly developable acres off the tax rolls, cements the notion that valley residents belong on another planet.
People in the valley aren't "super liberal," counters Hayes.
"It's not like you don't have your little wars over here. There's just somewhat of a meeting of the minds. The meeting of the minds is that all of us have accepted that this is an exceptional place, a beautiful place, and there are so many beautiful places that have been trashed, that there's really a collective effort to save it."
CUSTOM HOMES GOING UP
Beautiful places do have a way of attracting people, and the valley is in forward motion. Drawn by open spaces, crisp air and small-town friendliness, many westsiders visit in summers or winter, and more and more decide to stay.
In the past five years, the number of building permits for homes in the Methow Valley, though still small by urban standards, has risen sharply, from 52 in 1993 to 79 by the end of November so far this year.
Nancy and Richard Gode made the vacation trek from Seattle for years before deciding to build on land they bought eight years ago. Last summer, the Godes permanently traded in their home on Lake Washington for a comfortable log house - about 3,500 square feet and a guest cabin - on 11 1/2 acres near Mazama.
At 64, Richard is retiring from Virginia Mason Clinic, where he has been a psychiatrist. But the Godes don't expect to become couch potatoes. As members of an informal network called MOFIA (Mazama Old Farts in Action), they've been helping to improve and repair the trails system.
Cross-country skiing was the draw for Tom and Amy Payne, who for eight years, since their first daughter was born, have been driving to the Methow to ski, hike and bike.
When rentals became more expensive, less children-friendly and harder to get, they decided to build, says Tom, a 43-year-old Seattle physician. Earlier this year, they bought into a 12-acre parcel co-owned by 11 families. The foundation went in last month, and next spring, their modest 1,500-square-foot cabin will be built.
But "modest cabins" are definitely not the norm these days, local builders say.
More typical are custom homes like one being built near the Methow River by a former software executive from Seattle, a finely crafted lodge-style house with handmade doors, custom cabinets and state-of-the-art radiant heat in the master bedroom. The house itself is about 3,000 square feet, not including 1,500 square feet of decks and a spacious guest house with slate floors and clear cedar siding.
At the upper end of the scale is the office and guest-house complex being built near Sun Mountain resort by a member of the Seattle family that founded PACCAR - 12,000 square feet total.
Such big digs, says Dick Roberts, Mazama resident and chairman of the Okanogan County Planning Commission, have provoked some valley residents to call for "anti-castle" legislation.
People are bothered by huge homes that are used only a few weeks or months a year, he says. "They don't like to see that kind of waste of resources. They're screwing up the land, and nobody's benefiting from it - or the people benefiting from it already have it all. It's not like you're housing people who were unhoused."
Full-time valley residents also find themselves weighing the value of newcomers to their communities.
Generally, population growth can mean more jobs, more opportunities for young people, more choices when going out to dinner. But part-time residents aren't necessarily involved in the economy, supporting schools and businesses, locals say. "Those people aren't going into Winthrop shopping for knickknacks," contractor Brown says. "They buy their knickknacks at Miller-Pollard (a Seattle interior-design store)."
Newcomers and part-timers also "bring baggage from the city . . . city ideals, city ways that aren't rural - garbage," says Scott "Scooter" Rogers, Mazama fly-fishing-shop owner.
By this he means garbage in the literal sense - "this isn't their back yard so they don't care about it as much as we care" - and attitudes.
"It's the hurriedness, the speed at which they're going, and they expect us to go that fast," Rogers says. "The Methow kinda works on its own time. If it's a good fishing day, the guys are going to go fishing, and your foundation will go in tomorrow."
`IT'S A GREAT DEAL'
In the Methow, such concerns have a way of running up against an Eastern-Washington-born pragmatic streak. Fancy construction projects mean steady work, and they don't necessarily mean more people moving here to stay.
Harsh winters, when temperatures can fall to 30 degrees below zero and 4 to 6 feet of snow fills the valley floor, aren't for everyone. City life can be hard to put on hold.
For those who move here full time and must work, times can be tough. Residents often scramble to make ends meet, cobbling together three or four jobs.
"It's a harder place to make a living," says Craig Tissell, a construction worker who moved from Ellensburg. "I have a 6-year-old daughter who's had so many friends come and go."
But numbers suggest that more come - at least for part of the year - than go.
"As long as the Puget Sound area continues to boom, I think we're going to continue to boom," says Roger Meader, general manager of the busy Okanogan County Electrical Co-op. "It's the vacation playground of Puget Sound."
Contractor Jeff Brown suggests looking at it this way: Someone building a vacation home pumps money into the economy for four or five months and pays a big hunk of property taxes, but since they come over only a few times a year, they're not using many services or putting a strain on the infrastructure. "It's a great deal," he concludes.
But it's a deal not without its dangers.
"If they all move over here full time, then we're in trouble."