Thursday, August 2, 2012

Tall Skinny House In Process of Construction On Small Side Yard of Established Home, Neighborhors Asking Community To Sign "One House, One Lot" Petition Right Away To Stop Developers

Picture taken the first day the backhoe appeared on the lot at 4812 NE 40th Street

With no notice of any kind to neighbors living near the vintage frame house at 4812 NE 40th Street, southeast of Laurelhurst Park , a new property was segmented out of a larger one to build a tall skinny new house built on a very small lot.

Neighbors  have been surprised to see the established side yard, with a new address of 4810 NE 40th Street,  near 48th Avenue NE, turn overnight into a construction zone with a 20’-wide three-story house that a neighbor told us will tower above the other homes, wipe out their light and privacy, and be markedly out of character with the other houses and yards in the neighborhood.

Furthermore, neighbors were surpised to learn that this type of construction can happen without a public notice or hearing.

Dan Duffus, a developer purchased the 80-foot wide property, 4812 NE 40th Street, which included the whole of Lot 27, 30 feet of Lot 28, and 10 feet of Lot 26 (on which the garage was built).  Duffus  contacted the City for a letter stating whether the 30 feet of property that was once part of Lot 27 qualifies for development as a separate legal building site according to the Land Use Code.   

This building code for the City of Seattle states that only one home can be built on a single-family property lot.  And the general minimum lot area requirement in an SF5000 zone is 5000 square feet,  however the Land Use Code provides a number of exceptions. One of those exceptions applies to parcels recognized as separate lots in the public record prior to 1957.

A few local developerss, including Duffus, have found a way to leverage this loophole by finding a single-family lot in the city that includes not only a house but also an historic tax parcel (an old sub-lot), then petition the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to let the developer build a new home on that old tax parcel. 

In Laurelhurst a neighbor told us "We were told that the developer who bought the existing home appears to use a land use loophole that allows him to build on what otherwise would be an unbuildable piece of land, because decades ago it was designated a separate tax lot."

And neighbors contend that developer Duffus is specifically exploiting this loophole in the Code to erect houses throughout Seattle that are of scale for both the lot and the neighborhood just as he has done in Wallingford, Fremont, Queen Anne, Montlake and now Laurelhurst.

In Wallingford, according to their neighborhood blog, Wallyhood, Duffus built a single family home on only a 1,050-square-foot sliver of land, and the single-family housing zoning policy calls for new houses to be built on 5,000-square-foot lots.

A nearby neighbor to the development comments "We’re frustrated by what we see happening in our neighborhood with developers 'bending the rules' to make a profit but impacting the quality of lives for those left with the impacts

Erin Miller, with the  Blaine Street Preservation Committee, a block of Montlake that has incorporated itself into a nonprofit group, said that her group requested a list of DPD building permits issued for sites less than half the size of a normal single-family lot, and found out that Duffus had obtained 10 of the 15 such permits between 2008 and 2010.
A Laurelhurst resident living close to Duffus' property told us that if Duffus' request is approved, he is allowed to split the two parcels into two separate lots, oficially called a short plat, and sell each individually. 

Duffus, who also finances the builders he works with through is company Blueprint Capital, which last year financed 32 percent of the new homes in Seattle priced between $400,000 and $1 million, apparently told a a neighbor that he has built about 100 homes on small lots in the city

" It’s a slick way to build a new home in the backyard or side yard of an existing home (and turn one single-family lot into two lots). And it’s making neighbors in Laurelhurst and the city take notice and take action," the neighbor added.

Neighbors living near Duffus' property told us that the day after the building permit review period ended,  bulldozers started to remove the established plantings of the side yard and cut away through the length of the yard to start on the foundation. And the day before, neighbors saw their first.clue -  the fence line that went in 2' from the existing house.

Another neighbor told us that he was told by Rich Morse, the former owner, that he he had sold the property to an 'investor' but that the house was going to be rented, and he doubted that anything more would happen for a year or so. 

The neighbor said:
Because the house is classic, but small, we thought someone would eventually build it out in some way, but we never dreamed that there was any potential for a second home, even if the first were demolished.   
Instead, developer Dan Duffus filed almost immediately for the building permit at the new address of 4810. Because no public notice or posting is required, we had no idea that anything was afoot.  In retrospect, we should have been suspicious that the new owner was remodeling, not renting out the house. 
As for impact, from the looks of other Duffus properties, this will be stark modern house, totally out of character with the surrounding homes.  The plans show two corner decks that will look down directly into the remaining yard at 4812 and the ones behind and to the east of it.  As best I can tell, morning light and views will be cut off for at least two homes, and afternoon light will be will be blocked for at least 3-4. 
So far I have not heard of or from anyone who is not appalled with what is going on.  People walk or drive by and stop to stare in amazement.  Most can't believe this can happen without any warning, especially those who have had major hassles getting permits and permissions to make positive changes or repairs to their own homes.    
Perhaps that's the saddest part.  Other new neighbors have worked very hard to remodel or enlarge in ways that enhance the neighborhood and fit in with what is already there.  There has been no such effort here.  Indeed, we have heard nothing from Duffus, though I must admit that his workers have been very considerate.

A number of Laurelhurst residents have joined a multi-neighborhood movement called One Home Per Lot in which the website explains the issue in detail, shows Duffus' track record.

Also included on the webiste are links to recent articles by news outlets, including the Seattle Weekly, which published an in-depth article on Dan Duffus, titled "Dan Duffus' Crowded Houses: A developer's rampant exploitation of an obscure zoning loophole has Seattleites screaming 'Not in your backyard! The article explains in detail the issue and shows pictures of the negative impacts of Duffus' homes on residents throughout City.

The website also allows for public comments and provides concrete ways to take action and keep a similar structure from showing up next to you by clicking on the Stop It tab which gives information "to help make sure urban density doesn’t come at the expense of neighborhood character and livability," a neighbor told us.

Also included on the website is the citizen’s report, which details projects by the same developer, Tom Duffus. 

One Home Per Lot is also in the process of gathering 500 signatures by August 15th for an online petition to help with their legislative outreach to prevent such out-of-scale structures from continuing to be built in the city.

Neighbors have also met with City Councilmember Richard Conlin who is working on legislation that would put an end to backyard/side yard houses.  Conlin says he favors a tighter regulation that will only allow development on an exceptionally small lot if a home has at one time existed on it.  Conlin would also like to see a more formal review process put into place, which would include a public comment period, as well as a policy that would ensure the new homes would be built  in character with the neighborhood.

John and Karen Taylor, who represented Laurelhurst at the Conlin meeting, predict that citizen pressure will be needed for a strong legislative fix.

John urges everyone to write to Conlin ( or snail mail to Councilmember Richard Conlin, Seattle City Council, PO Box 34025, Seattle, WA 98124-4025) and the rest of the council to request quick and firm action to stop this practice.

Here is a letter a neighbor wrote to Councilmember Conlin by nearby neighbors:

Dear Councilmember Conlin,
We know you have heard from several of our neighbors regarding yet another instance of developer Dan Duffus exploiting a loophole in the land use law to erect a house that is out of scale both for the lot and the neighborhood. This is much as he has done in other Seattle neighborhoods, including Wallingford, Fremont, Queen Anne, and Montlake. 
Mr. Duffus and Soleil Development, recently purchased a vintage home at 4812 NE 40th Street in Laurelhurst, which included a small side yard that would not be buildable under today’s requirements. Yet he obtained City permits and is proceeding to build without ANY public review or awareness. Since his action is effectively a ‘taking’ in the value of our home and our neighbors, we have been denied due process.  
Apparently, a 1957 change in the land use code allowed an exception for otherwise unsuitable pieces of land that at one time were separate tax parcels. In this instance, the side yard was determined by the City to meet said criteria. This exception was designed to protect landowners at the time from being deprived of their full property value resulting from other changes made to the code at that time. Now, more than half a century later, those original owners have long departed, the properties have been widely considered to constitute a single lot, and the exception is being cleverly exploited by a single developer. 
The effect on his selected neighborhoods is dramatic and negative. In this instance, rather than building out the home at 4812 in a way that would preserve solar access and visual harmony with the existing house and larger neighborhood, Mr. Duffus is erecting a 20-feet wide, three-story house on an apparently 30-foot “lot”. 
His action leaves the existing house at 4812 with less than 3 feet of setback from the west property line. Foundations for the new Duffus house have less than 5-feet of setback to both the east and west property line. These discrepancies would appear to violate Seattle Code and the building permit issued to this Mr. Duffus. 
You have a strong record of championing land use policies that preserve neighborhood scale and character. Seattle, if it chooses, can promote urban density without allowing established residential neighborhoods to be impacted by intrusive, out of scale, “skinny houses” that do not meet Code and are fundamentally incompatible with existing development. Please close this outdated land use loophole before more Seattle residents wake up to find their privacy, solar access and scale obliterated.

Foundation layed (picture taken July 25th)

Breaking ground on the new "skinny" house

Framing first of 3 floors on 30' lot

An anonymous notice posted  in front of the existing house at 4812 which was remodeled and flipped and currently under a pending sale 


Scooter said...

Thank to the Laurelhurst blog team for posting this news. We've seen similar developments across the city and it's imperative that we each take action (sign petition, write council member and spread the word) to avoid more of these structures in Laurelhurst and beyond. Appreciate the news about this important issue.

Shannon said...

On Sept 5, Richard Conlin introduced emergency legislation that would require lots to be at least 50% of the size of a legitimate building lot and would restrict the size of houses in lots smaller than 3,750 square feet to that of an accessory dwelling unit. This legislation will stop the out-of-scale structures like the Laurelhurst project while the Council strives to find a permanent fix.

Developers are out in force to lobby city council this week, and we want the voice of residents to be heard too. It's critical you email/call city council members by Monday morning (9/10) and/or sign the petition if you haven’t already.


Read more on the Seattle Weekly blog update on topic: