Monday, October 14, 2013

Comment Now On DPD's Latest Recommendations For Skinny Homes on Side Yard Lots

House at 4812 NE 40th Street built on small side yard oringially part of home next door
The Seattle Department of Planning and Development is again asking for public input on a new set of recommendations regarding the future development of backyard / side yard houses.
In March, DPD released a preliminary set of recommendations in March, followed by a a final  set of recommendations in June. However, DPD received such a large amount of public feedback on those recommendations that they took the unusual step of revising its recommendations on September 16, which is what they are now seeking public feedback on.  City Council will begin formally discussing this issue again next month, when public hearings will be held.
DPD's final recommendations will be used by the Seattle City Council to create new building codes for backyard / side yard houses, "which is why it's important that you comment on them now.  If you want things to change for the better, you have to speak up" One Home Per Lot, a grassroots multi-neighborhood Seattle wide movement monitoring the legislation and building of sideyard houses, said in a recent email.
"The DPD and City Council count the number of emails and phone calls they receive regarding this issue and use that figure to measure citywide support/displeasure.  Recently, they expressed great surprise at receiving 100 emails from concerned citizens," the group added.
One Home Per Lot has written a sample letter included at the end of this post to submit to DPD.
Comments should be sent to both of the below people on or before Wednesday: 
- Andy McKim (Land Use Planner -- Supervisor):
- Richard Conlin (Seattle city council member):
In Laurelhurst last year, a new property was segmented out of a larger one to build a tall skinny new house built on a very small lot, originally at 4812 NE 40th Street, and now with a new address of 4810 NE 40th Street, just southeast of Laurelhurst Park.

Duffus purchased the 80-foot wide property 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.

Nick Jenkins, a Laurelhurst resident, who lives next door to a tall, skinny house, in Laurelhurst wrote a
blog post last year, on his experience with the new construction home right next door to him.

The skinny houses, which typically start at $700,000, are wedged into undersized lots, standing 25 feet tall (30 feet if they have a pointed roof). "To the surrounding neighbors, 25- and 30-foot tall backyard / side yard houses "feel like guard towers, cruise ships or skyscrapers," One Home Per Lot says.
One Home Per Lot which consists of Laurelhurst residents living around theses house, as well as others citywide,  explains the issues in detail, shows how to get involved and details the developer, Dan Duffus,' track record and lists the effects these projects have had on neighborhoods like Laurelhurst, Fremont, Wallingford and Montlake.
Here are some of the changes DPD reccommends
1. New houses built on smaller backyard / side yard lots will be limited to two stories in height. The height for backyard / side yard houses (on lots 3,200 square feet and smaller) would be limited to 18 feet (with five additional feet for a pointed roof). However, in a nod to the architectural community, the DPD will allow developers to build as high as 22 feet (with five additional feet for a pointed roof) if the house is limited to two stories, and the additional height is applied to the first floor.
One Home Per Lot comments: This is GOOD for neighbors/neighborhoods, because three-story backyard / side yard houses block views and sunlight and stare down on all of the surrounding houses/yards. But the fact that these two-story houses can still be 27 feet (as tall as a three-story house) is very concerning. Why can't they simply be limited to 18 feet, which is the same height as the current standards for backyard mother-in-law cottages (technically called detached accessory dwelling units)?

2. More historic documents will be removed from the list of items that developers can use to claim a backyard / side yard lot was always intended to be developable.
One Home Per Lot comments: This is GOOD for neighbors/neighborhoods because many backyard / side yard lots were never intended to be developed separately (and certainly never developed with towering, three-story structures). Now, developers will have to produce more reliable documentation showing the original owners really did intend to create a separate developable lot.

3. Three changes will be added to the building codes to prohibit developers from dividing one lot into two sub-standard lots "in creative ways" only to qualify the new lots for the less-restrictive sub-standard building codes.
One Home Per Lot comments: This is GOOD for neighbors/neighborhoods because it closes a number of loopholes a handful of developers have been using to squeeze backyard / side yard houses into places where they clearly don't belong.

4. Small, undersized lots that are now restricted from development (because they're smaller in size than the current 5,000 square foot minimum), would become developable -- if the lot was equal in size (or larger) to the majority of lots on the same side of that block. Developers will also be allowed to knock-down an existing house on one of these lots and build something new.
One Home Per Lot comments: This is NOT GOOD for neighbors/neighborhoods where the majority of lots and houses are especially small in size (West Seattle, Fremont, Wallingford, Eastlake, Beacon Hill and many other traditionally working-class neighborhoods). It means new houses as tall as 27 feet (22 feet plus five additional feet for a pointed roof) will be allowed to be wedged into the midst of small, one-story cottage houses. Tall houses in these neighborhoods look especially out of place.
DPD did NOT recommend implementing any kind of mechanism for notifying the neighbors when one of these projects is approved for development. The fact that neighbors have no warning before construction crews show up and start building a new house in a neighboring back / side yard is something that leaves many homeowners absolutely seething. The fact that this lack of notification also deprives those homeowners of filing a LUPA lawsuit within the required 21-day window is most likely also illegal (a federal lawsuit against the city of Seattle is currently pending in federal court regarding this matter).
In our discussions with the DPD and city council, we have made it clear that this is a top priority for neighbors/neighborhoods. A local IT director actually volunteered to show the DPD how to quickly and easily implement an automated notification system.

Here is Councilman Conlin's response to City Council's unanimous decision to extend the 6 month moratorium last month:


On Tuesday, September 3, I introduced emergency legislation to impose interim minimum density requirements in rapidly growing urban centers, urban villages, and station areas designated as pedestrian zones. The purpose of the legislation is to prevent valuable property in these areas from being developed with projects like stand-alone stores with large areas of surface parking. Such projects are contrary to our Comprehensive Plan and Neighborhood Plan policies for these areas and could limit our ability to meet our goals under the Growth Management Act.

I have long supported the idea of minimum density requirements in areas with high land values, frequent transit and an active streetscape, but public attention to this issue was prompted by three proposed new projects. CVS Drug Stores is proposing free standing stores in the West Seattle Junction, Queen Anne, and Wallingford, with possibly more in the future. These are vibrant, growing neighborhoods and the community is concerned that the proposed designs for these projects are inconsistent with the pedestrian orientation of the neighborhood. This legislation is a response to concerns voiced by community members and City officials about such kinds of development and is designed to set a pattern for the future.

Zoning has traditionally focused on limiting the size and density of development by setting maximum heights and density, called “FAR”, which stands for Floor Area Ratio. The FAR is the amount of floor space developed on a parcel compared to the size of the property. Thus an FAR of 2, for example, would represent twice as much floor space as the footprint of the property. Usually the FAR is a limitation on the bulk and scale of a project – a developer may be allowed to build, say, four stories, but have an FAR of 2, which means that a blocky building could only occupy half of the land area, or, more commonly, the building is modulated to occupy some larger portion, but with setbacks or other features on the upper floors to create a more compatible design.

Generally, in neighborhoods that are attractive for development, projects will be built out at or near their maximum FAR, and the City’s growth planning projects future growth capacity based on that outcome. Our neighborhood plans envision denser development around traditional commercial/retail cores, with additional height and density allowed to encourage housing over the commercial space. Because of the financial rewards for building larger buildings, zoning these areas usually results in development that is at or close to the allowed densities.

Even in areas where the City is still having difficulty in attracting investment, such as the SE neighborhoods around the light rail stations, when investment takes place it still most often builds out to the preferred densities. This is the Seattle model, sometimes called the ‘New Urbanism’ model that has developed over the last two decades with the revival of urban areas.

But what can we do if a property owner decides to create a building that is totally out of character with what we are looking for? The most common type of such development are retail stores that have a high financial return per square foot, and that are designed to attract auto traffic as their major customers. These are most often free standing coffee shops or drug stores.

A few years ago, Walgreens moved into Seattle with a store model that called for exactly that. In some cases, such as just north of Columbia City on Rainier Avenue, the neighborhood and City were unsuccessful in trying to get the store to be built along more urban, pedestrian-oriented lines (although we did get the company to include a smaller structure that fronts on the street to make the project less like a strip mall). When a similar project was proposed at Broadway and Pine, in the heart of a rapidly developing neighborhood, the community rose up and ultimately persuaded the company to make the store part of a mixed use development with several floors of housing.

Unfortunately, once a project has started down the path to permitting, it is very difficult to stop it or significantly change it legally. Washington law recognizes that property owners generally have the right to develop under the regulations in effect when they apply for a permit so this legislation will likely not affect these three current projects.

The legislation will do two things. First, by establishing a minimum density of 1.5 to 2.5 FAR (depending on the maximum height permitted in the zone) it will prevent further projects like this. Being structured as emergency legislation allows the City to stop the immediate threat posed by inappropriate development proposals, and put interim regulations in place immediately while we write permanent legislation that can address the nuances and complexities of legislation that affects many different neighborhoods.

Second, by sending a clear message that the City will take appropriate steps to curb development that does not fit our growing commercial neighborhoods, we will challenge those who want to push cookie-cutter, strip-mall development into our pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods to rethink their approach. Such developers might be startled by the depth of neighborhood demands for MORE development, not less. Knowing that the neighborhoods and the City are on the same page will help to generate pressure for them to back off on their incompatible proposals. It will also embolden the Design Review Boards, who are also unhappy about such projects, to use their powers to try to make the developments better. Together, we may be able to turn such projects around – and we have to try!

Regardless of the impact on projects already in the pipeline, we will have started down the path of establishing a zoning pattern that will make development work better in the future. By creating a minimum density regulation, we will help foster the kinds of neighborhoods that both the City and our neighborhood plans call for. And we will move a long way towards a zoning pattern focused not on preventing what we don’t want, but at encouraging what we want. That is the best approach for our urban future.

Here is a letter the Laurelhurst Community Club wrote last month to Councilmember Richard Conlin and
Members of the City Council regarding Small Lot Development in Single Family Zones
Dear Councilmembers and Mr. McKim:
The Laurelhurst Community Club Board of Trustees (LCC) supports CB 117898, which would extend the current moratorium on development of incompatible buildings on undersized single family zoned lots. LCC appreciates DPD’s efforts to develop workable solutions to address infill development, but the current proposal falls short in protecting the integrity and livability of Seattle’s neighborhoods. 

Building height, minimum lot size, application of the 75/80 rule, height, bulk and scale issues, and appropriate notice to affected property owners remain critical issues.

LCC looks forward to reviewing and commenting upon a revised proposal. In the meantime, LCC urges you to support extension of the current moratorium. Thank you for considering our views.

Here is a sample letter to submit by Wednesday written by One Home Per Lot:
Dear Mr. McKim (and councilman Conlin),
In the most recent set of DPD recommendations regarding backyard / side yard houses (Directors Report, September 16, 2013), you've made some good steps in the right directions, but your recommendations still don't go far enough. I suggest the following:
1. The 100 Percent Rule should be struck from the recommendations. If enacted, this rule would free up hundreds if not thousands of new backyard / side yard lots for developers and make it far easier for developers to hunt them down. While it may ensure that any new lots are comparable in size to their surroundings, the houses constructed on those lots will surely overwhelm all the surrounding structures (see my note #3 below). Plus, the 100 Percent Rule simply greases the skids for what the developers really want: The 80 Percent Rule.

2. The height for backyard / side yard houses (on lots 3,200 square feet and smaller) should be limited to 18 feet (with five additional feet for a pointed roof). This is the same standard currently used for accessory dwelling units, and those have been well received by most neighborhoods.

3. There should be no height exception for backyard / side yard houses built above grade. Your current above-grade recommendations would result in more 27-foot tall structures. Even if the structures were limited to two "habitable" stories, they're still the same size as a three-story structure, which means they would still have many of the same damaging impacts for the surrounding neighbors (loss of sun, loss of views, etc.).

Plus, current Seattle building codes allow for a "habitable attic" (which does not count as a story). Combining that loophole with your 27-foot height allowance would allow developers to construct a three-story, fully habitable house. The lesson: If you allow a 27-foot structure to be built, developers will find a way to make it fully habitable, right up to the pointed roof.
4. All future backyard / side yard house projects should be classified as Type II developments, which would be an easy way to provide the surrounding neighbors with the notification they so dearly want. It's heartless to not provide the surrounding neighbors with advance warning -- and an opportunity to lodge a complaint with a hearing examiner -- when one of these projects is approved for development. And it's illegal to not provide citizens with the advance notice needed to file a LUPA lawsuit within the 21-day window.
Thirteen months ago, the city council enacted an emergency moratorium and directed the DPD to suggest some solutions to the problems brought on by backyard / side yard houses. If the end result of those efforts is simply a three-foot reduction in structure height, and a new process for developers to use when qualifying their backyard / side yard developments, you will have done yourselves and the citizens of this city a great disservice.
I implore you to adjust your recommendations as suggested above.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree that the provision limiting the height to 18 feet should be enforced. If the developers want something higher, let them go somewhere else and build an apartment building or something in a different zone. The very high houses really destroy the neighborhood feeling and light, etc