Friday, May 16, 2014

Send Input To City Council On Important Development of Tall, Skinny Homes On Side/Back Yards


House at 4812 NE 40th Street built on small side yard originally part of home next door

One Home Per Lot.  a city-wide grassroots group monitoring large homes built on side and backyards of existing homes, is encouraging residents to contact City Council right away as they are taking a vote on Monday on whether or not to eliminate the 100 Percent Rule from the final small-lot legislation.

One such home is located at 4812 NE 40th Street in Laurelhurst,in Laurelhurst, which sits on a piece of property 30 feet wide, and was segmented out of a side yard which was a total of only 80 feet wide. The house covers all the land, except for 10 feet of the house's previous yard.
The amendment to eliminate the rule is being submitted by Council members Tim Burgess and Nick Licata.  One Home Per Lot is encouraging citizens to contact Council members to support the amendment to protect neighbors from developers building oversized homes on small side yards.
Earlier this month, Council members voted on" the most controversial aspects of the new building codes for backyard / side yard houses and demonstrated that they want this kind of development to continue unabated" One Home Per Lot said.

Here is a sample email written by One Home Per Lot to send to Council members:

Dear [name of council member],

In August, 2012, the city council took the rare step of placing an emergency moratorium on the construction of any more big houses on small lots while the DPD drafted legislation with meaningful solutions to the ongoing problems these projects cause neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the final legislation that will come before the full council on Monday does not correct many of the problems. Plus, it includes the “100 Percent Rule,” a new building code exception that will open up hundreds of new small lots to this kind of development.

I ask that you support council members Burgess and Licata’s amendment eliminating the 100 Percent Rule.

The 100 Percent Rule is bad because:

- Developers will be able to start building towering, three-story homes on the tiniest of lots again (the rule includes no lot-size minimum).

- It will free-up hundreds of new undersized lots for development (but no one knows how many hundreds).

- While the new lot created by the 100 Percent Rule may be the same average size as the other lots on that block, the new house built on the lot will most certainly be way out of proportion. Under the new legislation, developers will be able to build houses on these lots that are 27 feet tall (three stories).

- The neighborhoods that will suffer the most are the dense, formerly working-class neighborhoods with small, cottage-style homes (Montlake, Ballard, Wallingford, Green Lake, Queen Anne, Fremont, etc.). According to a map produced by DPD, those are the neighborhoods this rule targets.

- Adding a new exception to the building codes is the opposite of what the emergency moratorium was supposed to accomplish. The goal was to close loopholes, not open new loopholes.
- This will NOT create more affordable housing. According to a recent study of 36 small-lot Seattle homes, they sell for an average of $727,926 (35% more than the surrounding homes in the very same zip codes).

In addition, I ask that you also consider spearheading the following amendments:

- The maximum height limit needs to be reduced. The new height limit (22 feet base height, plus 5 more feet for a pitched roof) is only three feet shorter than the old height limit that caused so many neighborhood problems. That's not a compromise ... that's what the developers openly lobbied for from the very beginning. We think the alternative rule proposed by DPD (basing the height on the heights of the surrounding homes) would be much more fair. Or, using the same height limit currently used for backyard mother-in-law cottages (technically known as detached accessory dwelling units).

The amendment for accomplishing this is 1C on this Council Central Staff memo.

- The height-limit loophole for "remodels" needs to be eliminated. The "averaging" height limit proposed by DPD (see item immediately above) would work equally well for anyone wanting to remodel their small-lot home. Instead, the current legislation includes a remodeling loophole that would allow developers to buy a small-lot house and build even higher than the new height limit. (We've all seen what happens when developers "remodel" an old house by leaving just two of the original walls).

The amendment for accomplishing this is 2A on this Council Central Staff memo.

- The DPD's "abutting undersized lots" amendment needs to be added back in. The DPD proposed an amendment to stop developers from subjecting any more neighborhoods to three-story, side-by-side small-lot houses. But the developers somehow convinced decision-makers that two small-lot houses on abutting undersized lots are actually better than one.

The amendment for accomplishing this is 4A on this Council Central Staff memo.

- The DPD's "modulation" amendment needs to be added back in.  After touring a number of small-lot houses, DPD recommended some design guidelines that would make the houses more compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. Somehow, the developers' lobbyist got those guidelines removed from the final legislation.

The amendment for accomplishing this is 5A on this Council Central Staff memo.

This is your chance to be the hero of homeowners throughout the city by amending the small-lot legislation with the sensible alternatives included above. I look forward to seeing what you're able to accomplish.

Here are other recent developments as documented by One Home Per Lot:
  • Council member Mike O'Brien -- the head of the PLUS committee -- pushed hard on all the other committee members to vote in favor of the Smart Growth Seattle, (the  developers' lobbying group), pro-developer issues. He's eager to wrap this up, end the moratorium and let the developers start building in backyards and side yards again.
  • Council member Sally Clark -- who has been invisible for the last 19 months that this issue was being discussed -- showed up today to cast her votes in favor of the Smart Growth Seattle pro-developer issues, as well. She's an alternative member of the committee. If she had not showed up to support the developers, the outcome of yesterday's voting would have been very different.
  • During the committee's discussion period, O'Brien claimed to be aware of a few bad examples of backyard / side yard houses, but said he'd also seen many that were really good for their neighborhoods. Really? 
  • It sounds like Mr. O'Brien missed these photos and addresses for 122 backyard / side yard houses that are driving neighborhoods all across the city nuts.
  • He must have also missed the last two years of media coverage showing homeowner after homeowner forced to live in the shadows of backyard / side yard houses.
  • Somehow he also missed the petition signed by 760 Seattleites who are furious about backyard / side yard houses.
  • It seems all that's really sticking with him at this point is the private tour that the developers took him on last month to show off the few backyard / side yard houses that they want the public to see.
  • The developers at Smart Growth Seattle lobbied council member O'Brien recently to make it easier for them to also turn existing small homes on small lots into three-story skinny towers.
  • DPD tried to end the practice of building two side yard homes side-by-side, but council members O'Brien and Clark were successful in getting that amendment killed.
  • DPD also tried to make backyard / side yard houses less invasive and obtrusive by suggesting rules regarding the location of windows, the modulation of exterior walls, and the inclusion of backyard space. But council members O'Brien and Clark were successful in getting that amendment killed, as well.

New Rules:
  • Developers will no longer be able to build without any warning to the surrounding property owners - DPD will provide notice to neighbors when a backyard / side yard house is being considered for approval (but only on the smallest of undersized lots). For undersized backyard / side yard lots 3,200 square feet and larger, there will be no warning / notice provided to the surrounding homeowners.
  • No more building on lots smaller than 2,500 square feet (unless the 100 Percent Rule passes with no lot-size restriction, in which case that would be the only exception).
  • No more building on long-forgotten historic sub-lots -- making it tougher for developers to use historic maps and documents to justify building on sub-lots that are so long forgotten they don't exist on any current plat maps.
  • No more pretending the side or back of a house is the front to qualify for building-code exceptions.
  • No more demolishing an existing home, splitting the lot, and using small-lot building codes to maximize the size of the two new structures (the new structures now have to abide by full-size-lot building codes).
  • No more abusing the lot calculation requirement for the 75/80 Rule. But if the 100 Percent Rule passes, there's no need for the developers to abuse the 75/80 Rule anymore. They can just switch to the 100 Percent Rule.
  • No more creating “panhandle” lot designs to satisfy lot-area requirements -- This closes a loophole these developers were using to satisfy the requirement for a front yard without actually creating a front yard.
  • No more abusing the definition of “lot” to incorporate adjacent land into lot-area calculations -- This closes a loophole these developers were using to satisfy lot-area requirements when they didn't actually have the required amount of land.
For more information go here.

MAY 16 email update:
This email is being sent to everyone who received our May 7, 2014, email (that email is included at the end of this message for your reference).

In that message, we made some statements that have since proven to be untrue and unfair. Council member Sally Clark called us out on those details and nicely asked us to print a retraction. We are happy to oblige, because it's the only fair thing to do. And we apologize for the inadvertent errors.

We were not contacted by council member Mike O'Brien about any misstatements. But after reviewing the facts, we found we made one truly outrageous claim about him, as well.

In a One Home Per Lot email sent on May 7, 2014, and titled "The developers win (and homeowners like you lose)," we inadvertently wrote some things that are incorrect and unfair. Below, we set the record straight:

A. We wrote that the 100 Percent Rule passed by the PLUS committee did not include a lot-size minimum. That was incorrect. When it came time to vote on the 100 Rule, the discussions about whether to eliminate the rule or impose a minimum lot size on it became animated, and we misunderstood the end result.

After reviewing video of the meeting, it's obvious that the rule was passed with a requirement that no lot smaller than 2,500 square feet could be developed. We apologize.
In her email to us about this, Council member Clark corrected us as follows: "I think you’ve misstated the version of the 100% rule that’s in the legislation. It’s not without a “floor” in terms of minimum lot size. A lot could be no smaller than 2,500 square feet under any circumstance. I’m by no means looking to see limitless development of super small lots. I do think that if a block’s development pattern is already small, and if we’re about better matching existing character and scale, allowing the 100% rule makes sense. We may disagree on this provision, but it would be great to characterize it correctly."

B. We also wrote that council member Clark tried to convince the other council members that the 100 Rule would replace the existing 75/80 Rule. That also is inaccurate and not true.

After reviewing video of the meeting, we now know what Council member Clark actually said: "This [amendment has] gotten a lot of attention, and I've really been trying to suss out what it is. Again, at the beginning of this, I don't think we set out to completely ... to really shut down infill. Certainly concerned about the scale of infill that was happening, with what people were building seeming out of step with the surrounding community. And so, if I want infill to continue, there will be added density in these neighborhoods because infill happens. And if I want it to be generally in-scale with the surroundings, it seems like a 100 Percent Rule is actually a great step forward from 75/80, which is a torturous rule. And if we then also have a rock-solid minimum of 2,500, that seems like a pretty good box to have tried to constrain things in. And I am always worried that we've left some door open for something else to happen, but the idea of being able to allow it, have it be the 100 percent match-up with the surrounding lots, and to have there be the non-negotiable minimum, that seems to meet my interests.

Later in the discussion, she was even more clear: "So taking it out leaves us with the 75/80 ...."

In her email to us about this, Council member Clark corrected us as follows: "Also, I may have worded things poorly, but I never argued that it would replace the 75/80. I said that the 75/80 rule is confusing for people to understand. "

C. We also wrote that "The DPD also tried to make backyard / side yard houses less invasive and obtrusive by suggesting rules regarding the location of windows, the modulation of exterior walls, and the inclusion of backyard space. But council members O'Brien and Clark were successful in getting that amendment killed, as well."

Actually, the only aspect that was killed is the modulation requirement.

D. We also wrote that "O'Brien claimed to be aware of a few bad examples of backyard / side yard houses, but said he'd also seen many that were really good for their neighborhoods."

This is the most outrageous of our mistakes. After reviewing video of the meeting, we see that statement is absolutely not true, and we apologize for ever saying so. We think the One Home Per Lot member attending on our behalf let his emotions get the best of him and confused a combination of rather mild comments from O'Brien for something else entirely.

What O'Brien did say: "At the two extremes around small lots, we have examples where, you know, three-story buildings on 1,000 square foot lots have been built, contrary to what anybody's expectations in the neighborhood are. And at the other extreme: the desire to put a lot more housing in these neighborhoods that people want. And my goal throughout this whole process has been to find a path, surprisingly enough, kind of in the middle ... that allows for the types of reasonable development that's consistent with the scale of the neighborhood, prevents the kind of egregious examples from happening but continues to allow some level of infill development where appropriate and where those expectations exist."

He also said, "In the process of this, we've heard from a lot of people. Certainly in the case of the Alley Skyscraper, as it has been appropriately dubbed ... I think we're trying to avoid ... and this package of legislation would clearly prevent those types of things from happening going forward. We've also started to hear more and more from homeowners who haven't been paying attention who are saying, 'hey, wait a minute, this might affect my plans.'"

He also said, "For me, the intent of this is to restrict the egregious examples we've seen, but to allow the type of development that is consistent with the neighborhood's scale. And the 100 Percent Rule, in all the examples I've looked at, actually gets to that. Because it says you can build ... if the neighborhood is on average 3,000 square feet lots, then creating an additional 3,000 square foot lot isn't out of character with the neighborhood, and is, by definition, part of the character."

It seems pretty clear that the supporter attending this PLUS committee meeting on our behalf got lost in some of the discussions and let his emotions cloud his senses. We apologize.

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