The Twisp Planning Commission has closed the public hearing on the proposed 52-unit Orchard Hills planned development after taking additional testimony and written input last week. The commission will begin deliberations on the project next week.
The commissioners heard from a dozen people at their April 12 meeting. About 35 people attended the meeting, with still more participating via Zoom.
Although the commissioners took testimony, before hearing public comment, three of the five planning commissioners recused themselves to comply with the state’s appearance of fairness doctrine and avoid the potential for a conflict of interest.
Commissioner Bill Tackman had already recused himself because, as a professional surveyor, he has done survey work for Orchard Hills proponents Jerry and Julie Palm.
Art Tasker, who was sworn in as a planning commissioner at last week’s meeting, had submitted input on the Orchard Hills development before joining the commission. And Jasmine Minbashian, who’s the executive director of the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC), recused herself because MVCC recently submitted comments on Orchard Hills and because Julie Palm sits on the MVCC board.
With the three recusals, there were questions about whether the planning commission officially constituted a quorum.
Planning commission chair John Battle and town planner Kurt Danison pointed to a state law known as the “doctrine of necessity” that states, “in the event of a challenge to a member or members of a decision-making body which would cause a lack of a quorum or would result in a failure to obtain a majority vote as required by law, any such challenged member(s) shall be permitted to fully participate in the proceeding and vote as though the challenge had not occurred, if the member or members publicly disclose the basis for disqualification prior to rendering a decision.”
Battle and Danison said they would consult with the town’s attorney for a fuller understanding of the impact of the recusals before the commissioners begin deliberations at their next meeting on April 26.
Twisp town council liaisons Alan Caswell and Katrina Auburn were also in attendance.
Orchard Hills is a proposed housing development on the bluff west of downtown Twisp, often referred to as the “schoolhouse hill.” The proposal was submitted by Palm Investments North (owned by Jerry and Julie Palm). The proposal calls for 52 residential lots and three open-space tracts on approximately 17 acres. The open space would cover about 40% of the development. It was first submitted to the town in May 2022 and has undergone several revisions.
Many of the public comments revisited topics that have been raised before in the review of Orchard Hills, which has involved multiple determinations of environmental significance and two appeals.
After one appeal, the town withdrew its initial finding that Orchard Hills would have no significant environmental impact and issued a mitigated determination with matters the proponents must address. That determination is also under appeal.
At the hearing, several members of the public questioned whether Orchard Hills fulfills the intent of a planned development, which is supposed to provide public benefit through open space and other amenities.
One commenter was concerned about the configuration of the public space and access to trails. She asked if the town is equipped to care for those amenities.
Another was concerned about impacts of air quality from 52 wood-burning stoves and dust from road sand applied in the winter.
Some questioned whether the project would pose an undue impact on neighbors. “You’re willing to bet my property, my property values, everyone’s property values,” neighborhood resident Mark Edson said. Another commenter wants covenants and architectural standards to be required.
Several asked about measures to protect the homes and neighborhood from wildfire. Bill Moody, a retired firefighter and smokejumper, said he was pleased that the Palms intend to follow fire codes for the wildland-urban interface, but wants a written commitment that goes “above and beyond” the code. With lots close together, there’s a greater chance of a fire spreading between homes, he said.
Moody was one of several people who raised concerns about the need for a second road for ingress and egress. The neighborhood is currently accessible only from May Street off of Second Avenue. Access for emergency vehicles could be more uncertain in the winter, when piles of snow narrow the roads, one person said.
While many people voiced concerns, some said that they weren’t opposed to the project as long as there are adequate mitigations to minimize impacts on the neighborhood.
Proponent Jerry Palm presented highlights of a recent traffic study. The study shows there would be little impact to the intersections with Second Avenue and Highway 20 even after full buildout. Palm Investments North will wait for recommendations from the fire marshal before making a decision about fire protection measures, Palm said.
Battle granted Palm Investments a week to respond to new written and verbal comments. The planning commissioners will review all comments, the town’s staff report, and a new environmental determination before their next meeting, Battle said.
The planning commissioners do not make a final decision on the project, but provide a recommendation to the town council, Danison said.
In addition to Orchard Hills, there are several other housing developments in the works, Danison said. Twisp is behind on its required update of the Shoreline Master Program (SMP), in part because the planning commission has been devoting considerable time to the Orchard Hills proposal, Danison said. Twisp’s update to the SMP is due at the end of June, when state funding for the update expires, Danison said. The SMP protects natural resources and provides for public access to waterways.
The unprecedented level of public interest in the Orchard Hills development suggests that Twisp should revisit its comp plan and town code to be sure the documents reflect the goals and visions of residents, Danison said.
Next on Orchard Hills
The Orchard Hills application, traffic study, staff report and public comments can be viewed on the town’s website at www.townoftwisp.com/news_detail_T2_R7.php, or at the town offices.
The planning commission will be meeting every two weeks because of its substantial workload. The next meeting is Wednesday (April 26) at 5 p.m. in the Civic Building.