Council's New Planning Chair Talks Small-Lot Housing
Mike O'Brien, the city council's new planning committee chair, talks about plans to regulate small-lot housing.
As we reported in Fizz this morning, the city council is moving quickly to adopt new restrictions on so-called "small-lot housing"—AKA the (relative handful of) those controversial tall, skinny houses that have popped up on "substandard" lots smaller than 5,000 square feet in single-family neighborhoods around Seattle.
The council has been debating whether, and how much, to restrict small-lot houses for years now, but the cast of characters shifted dramatically on Election Day 2013, when Richard Conlin—who advocates for small-lot development viewed as receptive to their arguments—was booted off the council. The new head of the planning committee formerly headed by Conlin is Mike O'Brien, who acknowledges readily that he has a steep learning curve on the issue.
But there isn't much time to get up to speed. On Monday, the council will vote to renew interim restrictions on small-lot houses that were first adopted as "emergency" legislation back in 2012. Those rules allow some development on lots that are smaller than the minimum lot size for single-family zones, but restrict the size of those new houses, depending on the size of the lot they're built on.
Additionally, they'll introduce a first attempt at permanent legislation to regulate small-lot housing. That first pass, drafted by the city's Department of Planning and Development, would impose a complex set of new rules including minimum lot sizes that would vary based on the size of the average lot on a block face, absolute minimum lot sizes, lower height limits for very small lots, and new public-notice requirements.
Planning committee chair O'Brien says he's sympathetic to single-family neighborhood residents who feel encroached upon by three-story houses that, they say, don't fit in with the "character" of their neighborhood.
"The most egregious examples of what’s being built—I wouldn’t want those in my neighborhood," says O'Brien, who lives in a single-family house in Fremont. "One of the challenges you get is when you try to squeeze a house on a small lot, the inside has to be somewhat livable, without having much room for architecturaly creativity on the outside—the nice kind of modulation and setbacks have to go away. And so you get some pretty ugly things that seem out of place."
O'Brien says restricting small-lot houses to two stories instead of three—one proposal among many in the DPD legislation—could help solve that aesthetic problem.
The DPD proposal would also require public notice of any development on a lot smaller than 3,200 square feet. At the state level, a similar proposal by Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46) raised concerns that the real intent of requiring notice was to give neighbors time to file environmental appeals, stopping or delaying proposed developments and potentially making them prohibitively expensive.
O'Brien says he has no interest in "creating any expectation that any one person in a neighborhood can shut down any project or increase the costs so that no one can ever build again. I think we can find a middle ground." Pollet, O'Brien adds, never consulted with the city about his bill, which would have imposed notice requirements on Seattle from the state level.
"That kind of caught me by surprise," O'Brien says. "I said, let’s sit down and talk about this, but I think the most appropriate place to address city of Seattle land use is through the city."
"To the extent that I share concerns with him we’ll try to work on something that makes sense in Seattle, and if he is not satisfied with what we do as a city, obviously he has the prerogative as a state legislator to do something else, but when they skip the city process and go straight to the state process that’s a little disconcerting."
On the pro-development side of the debate, Roger Valdez of Smart Growth Seattle, a developer-backed group that formed to promote small-lot housing, says the regulations DPD has proposed are far more Byzantine and onerous than what the planning committee was discussing last year.
"We want clarity on the fact that we were in the middle of very positive negotiations with Richard Conlin when he was removed from office, and we would like to begin that conversation again," Valdez says. DPD's "legislation is not reflective of that positive discussion. Our hope that is we go back to that place where things were looking better for everybody and start there."