Residents raise many questions about proposal
The Twisp Planning Commission mostly goes about its business in solitude. Its monthly meetings are sparsely attended and its work is dense with technical detail.
But last week, the Planning Commission drew a standing-room-only audience, plus a host of online “attendees,” for a public hearing on the proposed Orchard Hills planned development at the new Civic Building meeting room. More than 20 of those in attendance signed up to testify in person or online; many others had submitted written comments for the commission’s consideration.
The object of all that interest is a proposed 52-unit housing development in the “schoolhouse hill” area on the bluff west of downtown Twisp. Residents of the area and other parts of Twisp have been following the proposal’s progress through the complex approval process for months, and expressing a variety of concerns that were reiterated at last week’s hearing.
The Orchard Hills development, first submitted to the town in May 2022 and subsequently revised, is proposed by Palm Investments North LLC of Winthrop. The development is on the site of an old, abandoned orchard on the bench to the west of downtown Twisp, which is also the site of the former Allen Elementary School.
Several public hearings on the Orchard Hills proposal that were scheduled in 2022 were postponed while the developers’ application was revised in response to public and planning staff comments.
The delays and resubmittal came after the original determination that the project would have no significant environmental impact was appealed. After the town received comments objecting to the non-significance finding, that finding was withdrawn and “a list of items that the applicant must address in order for the town to issue a mitigated determination of non-significance” was provided.
The town recently issued a new “mitigated determination of non-significance” based on the revised proposal, concluding that the Orchard Hills development “will not have significant adverse impact on the environment.”
The revised proposal calls for 52 residential lots of 3,630 square feet to 8,903 square feet and three open space tracts on approximately 17 acres. The open space would cover about 6.8 acres, or 40% of the development.
Palm Investments owns the property, which is being characterized as an opportunity to develop affordable single-family housing. Developers Jerry and Julie Palm cited the critical need for affordable housing in the Methow Valley in the original Orchard Hills application.
According to the resubmittal’s executive summary, comments received earlier were reviewed and considered in the reapplication, and incorporated where appropriate. The plan has been revised to incorporate only roads that meet the town’s design standards, the document said, and the developers will not request dispensation from the town’s minimum house size requirements.
Mark Villwock, representing the developers at last week’s public hearing, told the commission that the Palms want to provide a welcoming neighborhood and help meet the community’s housing needs. Orchard Hills would include substantial open space, and the site’s steep slopes would be protected from future development, he said.
The Palms have hired a team of consultants to address environmental and engineering concerns about building on the site. Their findings are reflected in the lengthy application documents.
While many of those testifying said they were not generally opposed to development on the property, they cited several issues have been raised consistently about the project as presented:
• Ingress and egress to the area is currently by only one street, which would create problems if the area needs to be evacuated because of wildfire concerns or other emergencies. “Unless the Town has some way to provide suitable fire safety protection for the May Street neighborhood or places appropriate fire-safety conditions on the approval, proponents’ application must be rejected,” Jerry Heller said in written comments. Options for creating other access points to the neighborhood are limited, and the addition of more than 50 dwelling units could be expected to significantly increase traffic in the area.
• The proposed housing, according to many commenters, should not be characterized as “affordable” because of the anticipated costs of development. Several commenters said the likely prices of lots, building costs and other factors such as market forces would disqualify the proposed development from calling itself “affordable.”
• The proposed density could negatively affect the character of the neighborhood, several commenters said. Under the existing code related to density, the development would support about 30 housing units. “Proponents’ 52-lot subdivision is unreasonable and allowing it would be a breach of public trust for all those who relied on the established Twisp zoning and created the existing neighborhood,” Deb Barnard, a resident of the neighborhood, said in written comments. Several others expressed similar sentiments. Some of the units would have zero lot lines; others would have no public road frontage.
• The proposal should be considered in context with the several other potential housing projects that are in various stages of development, given the increased pressure on water and sewer systems and other town services.
• The town planning staff, including part-time planner Kurt Danison, should be given more resources because they are being asked to deal with an increasing number of complicated requests, in addition to working on revisions to the sign code and other directives from the Town Council.
Danison joked that the turnout at last week’s meeting represented more than the total planning commission attendance of the past decade. Hefting a stack of printed comments, he said it’s the most submissions he’s seen on any project.
Danison emphasized that the current process is to consider preliminary approval of the development by the commission, which is likely to include a long list of provisions and requirements. The final decision on preliminary approval is up to the Town Council, which can reject it, accept it as is, or approve it with more requirements. Final approval goes through the same process: review and recommendations by staff, consideration and action by the Planning Commission, and then review and action by the Town Council.
“It’s hard to say how long that will take,” Danison said.
As to the road access issue, “We realize we only have one way out,” Danison said, but pointed out that the access problem must be addressed by the town sooner or later, whether Orchard Hills is built out or not.
“It’s needed anyway, and it’s not because of the Palms’ development,” he said. “It’s not the Palms’ responsibility.”
There is still time to comment on the town’s “mitigated determination of non-significance.” A copy of that document can be found on the town’s website. The comment period is open until Feb. 22.
Last week’s hearing was continued until the commission’s March 8 meeting, when more testimony can be offered. Written comments will also be accepted. But after March 8, the public’s participation will be limited.
The Planning Commission’s March 8 hearing will be at 5:30 p.m. in the council chambers at the Twisp Civic Building. Instructions to join the meeting online will be posted on the town’s website in advance of the hearing at townoftwisp.com.
All submitted documents related to the proposal can be found at www.townoftwisp.com/news_detail_T2_R7.php. The documents also can be reviewed at the Civic Building during regular business hours, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Written comments can be submitted to the Town of Twisp, P.O. Box 278, Twisp, WA 98856.