The city council will vote this afternoon on an "emergency" proposal by council member Richard Conlin that would prevent prevent developers from exploiting a loophole in the city’s land-use code that allows them to build tall (and, as we mentioned when we covered this story last week, often cool-looking) modern cottages next to certain existing single-family houses. The legislation, which requires a three-quarters vote of the council would go into effect immediately, and last a year; at that point, the council would have to revisit it or pass it again.
Because the council has deemed it an emergency, it does not have to go through the normal legislative process, including public committee hearings and environmental review.
To preserve open space, city zoning law only allows single-family housing on lots of a certain size, usually 5,000 square feet. However, the law exempts certain lots created before 1957, when the city adopted its first zoning laws, from those rules. So, for example, if a parcel of land is now considered part of a larger lot, but was a separate lot before the city adopted its land-use code, a savvy developer could effectively subdivide the lot and build a new house on a piece of land smaller than city law currently allows—lots as small as 2,500, or 1,500 square feet. These houses tend to be tall and skinny, and have small yards, an aesthetic some residents oppose.
In short, the legislation is a response to residents who want to mandate that their neighbors have large yards and short, preferably not modern-looking, houses.
A little perspective here: In contrast to the current "emergency," 2009 legislation to allow backyard cottages on certain large lots in the city took years of process, as neighborhood opponents complained that law would lead to hundreds or thousands of out-of-scale backyard monstrosities citywide. Instead, there have been a few dozen.[pullquote]Of approximately 159 single-family houses that were built under various exemptions to the city’s land use code between January 2011 and June 2012, just nine were allowed under the historical exemption Conlin’s emergency proposal will outlaw.[/pullquote]
In its story today on the legislation, the Seattle Times cites unidentified “neighbors across the city who estimate that more than 100 of these houses have been built in back and side yards.”
That may be what neighbors "estimate," but the truth is, the city simply doesn’t know how many tall-and-skinny houses there are on substandard historical lots, because they just started studying them after residents raised concerns in 2011. However, according to a city analysis, of approximately 159 single-family houses that were built under various exemptions to the city’s land use code between January 2011 and June 2012, just nine were allowed under the historical exemption Conlin’s emergency proposal will outlaw.
Put another way, according to the city, “About four percent of the lots that would have qualified for separate development in the past would no longer qualify.” Another 10 percent or so would still qualify for development, but under the size limits that apply to backyard cottages (the same cottages neighborhood activists argued would destroy the character of their neighborhoods back in 2009).
As for the claim that these houses are “McMansions” that block out all sunlight and air: Yes, they are tall. But they’re hardly mansions. The one in Wallingford that has everyone so exercised (highlighted in the Times and Seattle Weekly) is 1,400 square feet. Hell, that’s small enough to qualify as a “shoebox” under some density opponents’ standards.
And ultimately, aesthetics shouldn’t dictate zoning law. A modern house, built in 2012, isn’t a Craftsman, nor should it be. Even if the city ultimately decided to limit the height of these houses (at three stories, there’s an argument to be made that they’re a bit imposing), they hardly constitute the kind of emergency that demands bypassing all the ordinary public process. Neighborhood complaints are no justification for the council to ban tall-and-skinny houses by fiat.
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