Photo by Ann McCreary

This small residence on May Street in Twisp has sparked discussion about the size and appearance of dwellings permitted in town.

Controversy over tiny home in Twisp prompts town to revisit zoning code

By Ann McCreary

A tiny house has turned into a big issue for the Town of Twisp after neighbors complained that the residence is too small.

The house that sparked the complaints is a 288-square-foot dwelling at 403 May St., in a single-family home neighborhood commonly called Painters’ Addition. The issue has prompted the Twisp Planning Commission to consider changes to its zoning code to establish minimum house sizes in different zones of town. A public workshop on proposed zoning code changes is scheduled for Aug. 15.

Complaints about the house and a travel trailer parked next to it have been voiced over the past couple of months by residents in the neighborhood, primarily Mark and Leone Edson, who live across May Street from the house.

In comments made at several Town Council meetings, the Edsons have complained that the small house is incompatible with other, larger houses in the neighborhood, and criticized town officials for permitting the structure. They have also questioned whether the house conforms to town building codes and whether the trailer parked next to the house should be allowed to remain on the property. The Edsons also alleged that the owner was occasionally living in the house without having received an occupancy permit from the town.

Gap in code

The questions about the house revealed a gap in the town’s zoning code. While there are minimum size requirements for manufactured homes (also called mobile homes) of 320 square feet, as set by federal law, there are no minimum size requirements for other types of houses in Twisp, said Kurt Danison, Twisp’s town planner.

The small house is owned by Linda Maxwell of Burien, who purchased the lot in 2014. The property is part a three-lot short plat developed by Lucy Reid, who lives nearby.

Maxwell said covenants for the property allowed mobile homes or trailers to be occupied for up to 90 days a year.

In an interview this week, Maxwell said she and her partner, Gretchen Baar, didn’t plan on building right away and bought an 18-foot travel trailer that was delivered to the property in May 2016.

“This met our short-term needs to a T,” she said.

However, Maxwell and Baar were informed that summer that Twisp ordinances do not allow a travel trailer to remain on a property unless there is a residential dwelling. They subsequently received a temporary-use permit that allows a trailer to stay for up to two years if an owner has a building permit, said Danison.

“We were required to demonstrate basic plans and evidence that a dwelling was initiated within 365 days,” Maxwell said. “We were a bit taken aback, to say the least, and checked with several builders and contractors, but no one was interested.”

Because they had not intended to build right away, “our funds were limited,” she said. So, they contracted with Alpine Sheds in Tonasket, which customized a 12-by-24-foot building to meet residential standards, including insulation, wiring, overhead lighting, a stove vent and full bathroom.

The building was delivered to the lot in May this year — and complaints from neighbors began soon after. The temporary-use permit for the trailer is due to expire in August.

The town has told Maxwell that she must complete water, sewer and electrical hookups before the house can be legally occupied. Maxwell said she has arranged with a local excavator to dig ditches for utilities in late August and hopes to complete installation this fall. The cabin is furnished and insured, she said.

The town is considering whether to extend the temporary use permit to allow the trailer to stay while the property owners complete the utilities installation and obtain a certificate of occupancy, Danison said.

Danison acknowledged the frustration of neighbors who see the small house as incompatible. But without zoning regulations that address house sizes, the town had no grounds to deny the project. “Nobody’s thrilled with the situation. As the planner …I  can’t say no just because the neighbors don’t like it,” Danison said. 

Meeting with neighbors

After receiving a letter in late June signed by several Painters’ Addition homeowners questioning the continued presence of the trailer on the property and whether the house could be legally occupied, town officials called an informal meeting in mid-July to discuss the issue with neighborhood residents.

Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, who is also a resident of the Painters’ Addition neighborhood, said town officials were not ignoring the concerns of residents. “We’re doing the best we can, and doing it in the best interest of the public,” Ing-Moody said.

The Painter’s Addition area is an R-1 zone, a low-density residential zone with minimum lot sizes of 10,000 square feet. The owners of the small house met all the requirements of setbacks and lot coverage, Ing-Moody said. A certificate of occupancy won’t be issued until requirements for completing the building, including installation of utilities, are met, she said.

Danison said with the approaching August deadline for removal of the trailer, the town will need to determine how to deal with that issue, including whether to give the property owner more time to complete work on the house. “The enforcement of our land-use codes can be a balancing act,” he said.

Danison said the Planning Commission is discussing new zoning regulations that would set a minimum house size of 1,200 square feet in the R-1 zone, which is the zone for Painters’ Addition.

Complaints heard

Some neighbors at the meeting said the building didn’t look like a house, and one person said it resembled a “gypsy camp.”

Leone Edson criticized the mayor and Town Council for not responding during council meetings to questions she and her husband have raised during public the comment periods about the house, which the Edsons have referred to as a “shed.”

Ing-Moody responded that the Town Council takes public comment, but meetings are not forums for discussion or debate. “We’re not ignoring you,” Ing-Moody said, adding that the town encourages citizens to provide concerns and comments in writing.   

Town Council members Alan Caswell and Hans Smith, who are also residents of the Painters’ Addition neighborhood, said they met with Maxwell and Baar to talk about the concerns. They made the visit as neighbors and as council members, they said.

“They’re very upset … they came here with high hopes,” Caswell told residents at the meeting. “They’d like you all to mind your own business. As disappointed as you are with them, they’re disappointed with you.”

In an interview last week, Danison said he was “kind of taken aback by the level of vitriol” that has arisen in discussions about the house. There is a nationwide trend toward smaller size houses, Danison said. Homes being built in Twisp by the Methow Housing Authority range from 900-1,100 square feet, he said.

Maxwell said she and Baar have been visiting the Methow Valley for 15 years. “We love the valley, but this experience has been very difficult. We appreciate the support of some of the surrounding neighbors.” She said she and Baar plan to landscape the property after they complete the building.

In a Town Council meeting last week, council members briefly discussed the possibility of placing a temporary moratorium on houses of certain sizes in the R-1 zone, although took no further action.

Minimum house sizes will be a topic at the Planning Commission workshop to be held on Aug. 15. Proposals under consideration would place minimum sizes of 1,200 square feet in R-1 zones, 800 square feet in R-2 zones, and 320 square feet in R3 zones, Danison said. The meeting will be held in the Town Council chambers at 5 p.m.