Owner questions fairness of treatment by town
Last winter, Heidi Appel purchased part of the bluff on the west end of Twisp, near where the town’s elementary school once stood. Her 9.45 acres of shrub-steppe was under so much snow at the time that, as Appel likes to say, she couldn’t tell what she had bought.
Appel, an attorney who specializes in land-use law and holds the distinction of being Okanogan County’s first female judge, told the Twisp Town Council on June 11 that she had observed a lot of residential sprawl in the Methow Valley and had made a conscious decision to live inside town limits. She would have access to town services such as water and sewer, and she wouldn’t need to drive her car as often.
Land set aside for residential development inside a town’s boundaries should be used to build houses, Appel said. That is the environmentally responsible thing to do.
Neighbors on alert
Appel’s new neighbors in Isabella Ridge and other nearby subdivisions had been using her property and a larger vacant parcel to the south for years, to walk their dogs, get some exercise and enjoy nature. The neighborhood is home to two council members — Hans Smith and Alan Caswell — and Twisp’s mayor.
Years ago, both vacant parcels had been primed for dense residential development, with plans for as many as 60 new homes. Those plans never materialized. The property owners missed some debt payments, and the property Appel eventually purchased fell into foreclosure.
After the snow melted on Appel’s part of the bluff, a bench below the summit revealed itself as a suitable place to build. Appel had a dirt driveway built on the east end of her property, between the bench and the paved street below that winds through Isabella Ridge.
The neighbors noticed, and they used a group email list that had been set up for emergencies to share their concerns.
“It’s not too late to make some level of conservation impact happen on the hill,” Sarah Schrock wrote in an email to neighbors on May 2. Schrock is council member Smith’s wife. “Please help me in furthering the unique beauty of this town by helping craft a thoughtful and well-planned open-space element to any future development on the hill.”
Schrock had been spearheading an effort to secure the bluff as open space for years. She alerted neighbors in 2017 to a public auction on the foreclosed property. Schrock saw this as an opportunity to buy the property and convert it to public use. Her appeals to neighbors and conservation groups did not result in a purchase. Property records indicate the parcel did not sell at the July 2017 auction.
Schrock submitted a letter to the council on May 2, asking it to “help secure public open spaces for all of Twisp, specifically the property (on the bluff).” The letter named two parcels: Appel’s property and the vacant 16.8-acre parcel to the south.
The letter also asked the town to require a permit for filling and grading work, including driveways. Under Twisp’s current rules, Appel’s driveway, built with no public notice, was legal.
Corky Barker, who owns the larger parcel, is on the verge of selling it. A Twisp business owner may purchase Barker’s land and build homes on it, Town Planner Kurt Danison said last week. Danison said he met with the potential purchaser to discuss how much it would cost to extend water and sewer lines to the property.
Barker said on Tuesday (June 18) he expects the sale to close by the end of this week.
Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody put Schrock’s requests on the agenda for the May 28 council meeting, and Schrock spoke at the meeting to elaborate on her proposal.
“That property has been in discussions for a long time … for creating open space, which does align quite well with a lot of the [town’s] goals and policies,” Schrock said.
She said she would like the town to require an area of open space on the bluff, if it is ever subdivided—open space that would be “either accessible or visual.”
Neighbors are especially interested in seeing the bluff remain accessible. Appel and Barker’s properties have been “unofficial open space for walking, biking, birding and dog walking” for years, Schrock’s letter said.
Caswell said he and many others walk the bluff regularly. In an interview, the council member acknowledged the bluff had been privately owned the whole time, but “nobody ever said ‘boo’ to anyone about walking on the deer trails” up the bluff.
“A lot of people walk that from end to end every day,” Caswell said. “We’ve been here eight years. We’d hate to see that cut off with ‘no trespassing’ signs.”
Caswell and his wife, Lois, bought the westernmost lot in the Isabella Ridge subdivision about the same time Appel bought her parcel. The Caswells intend to build their next home on that lot, which abuts Appel’s property. Caswell said they purchased the lot expressly for the privacy it would afford them.
“This hillside is impacting right to our property line,” Caswell said at the May 28 meeting. “We want to acquire some of that lower property.” The acquisition would come in the form of a boundary-line adjustment rather than an outright purchase, Caswell said later.
Caswell then said he may need to recuse himself from any vote the council might take on Appel’s parcel. In an interview Tuesday (June 18), Caswell clarified that he would not recuse himself unless prompted to do so by public concern over his potential transaction with Appel.
Smith, the other council member who lives near the bluff, was active during the discussion of his wife’s letter. He recommended establishing a fill-and-grade permit, at least for projects that meet a minimum threshold. Smith also suggested the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission take a fresh look at how Twisp wants to expand its trails and other public spaces. Schrock sits on the Parks and Recreation Commission.
Smith said the planning commission should consider updating the town’s open space requirements. The full council agreed to forward Schrock’s letter to the planning commission, which is now charged with making recommendations back to the council for final approval.
In the middle of the discussion of Schrock’s letter, Twisp Public Works Director Andrew Denham said a potential developer on the bluff had just contacted him, seeking a meeting with him and Danison.
Smith instructed Denham to “take copious notes.”
Appel criticized the council for its action on two consecutive nights — the June 11 council meeting and a planning commission meeting the following evening. Schrock’s letter was on the planning commission’s agenda on June 12.
In front of the town council, Appel said she had been harassed by neighbors, who are also trespassing on her property.
“I think the discussion about the open space ordinance, before the planning commission tomorrow, is clearly directed toward me and my desire to have a home in the Town of Twisp,” Appel said.
“I would hope that you would welcome new people who want to live in your town,” she added. “The only way to have affordable, environmentally conscious housing in Twisp is to make it easier.”
At the planning commission meeting, Appel took a legal tack, saying the chain of emails among neighbors, including town leaders, compromised any “appearance of fairness” council would have in future votes on her property.
“It’s concerning to me that the council has requested this [planning commission] discussion when the council is involved in these ex parte communications, along with the mayor,” Appel said, implying that so far, she has not gotten a fair hearing from the town.
Appel said the council’s decision to fast-track a change to open-space rules based on one neighbor’s concerns about her property amounted to an abuse of power.
“I may have to bring an application before town leadership with all of this going on,” she said.
Appel told the planning commission that for now she has no plans to subdivide her piece of the bluff, but she does intend to build a home there. In addition to purchasing 9.45 acres on the bluff for $170,000 this winter, Appel also purchased one of the 12 lots in Isabella Ridge: 0.32 acres for $86,500.
Appel left open the possibility she would develop the bluff with more houses. She and her boyfriend, Mike Port, met town staff last week to be briefed on the town’s development regulations.
Port has experience working through the town bureaucracy to rezone and develop properties. He also has a contentious recent history with the town.
Mayor Ing-Moody fired Port from his unpaid position as airport manager in November 2017. Then, in October 2018, Port filed an insurance claim against the town, claiming a subcontractor damaged a parking lot on one of his commercial properties on Highway 20. The town council rejected Post’s claim, which he had filed with the property’s co-owner, Bob Ulrich.
Post and Ulrich then sued the town on April 3 in Okanogan County Superior Court over the damaged parking lot, seeking treble damages plus attorney’s fees.
In my backyard
In an interview, Smith said what he took from his wife’s letter was a more general request to revisit the town’s policies on open spaces — not anything relating specifically to Appel or Barker’s properties.
“The questions raised by my wife are good questions for the town,” Smith said.
As for what recommendations planning commissioners might give to council, Smith said it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to suggest designating public or open space on Appel’s property specifically.
“I’m not of the opinion that they are focused on her property, nor should they be,” he said.
Smith said he was “very interested in what goes on in the neighborhood as a resident there,” and he did not see any reason why he would recuse himself from a vote on Appel’s property. He said he would consult with the town attorney or the Association of Washington Cities for advice on whether he had enough of a conflict of interest to require him to step away from such a vote.
Danison, the town planner, said in an interview that the town had no legal grounds to target the vacant properties on the bluff with a rule change.
“There isn’t really any regulation we could pass that would stand up that would say [Appel’s] property is open space. That’s not in the realm of possibility,” Danison said.
Development requirements need to be based on existing statute, facts and logic, Danison said, rather than a neighbor’s preferences.
“We’re very cognizant that there’s NIMBYism,” Danison said, referring to the acronym for a neighborhood’s aversion to change: “Not In My Backyard.”
“Unfortunately, ‘because the neighbors don’t like it’ isn’t something you can condition for.”