City Hall

City Could Prohibit Some Small-Lot Development

By Erica C. Barnett September 5, 2012

City Council member Richard Conlin has taken the unusual step of proposing interim legislation---that is, legislation that can sidestep the normal legislative process, including environmental review---to close a loophole in the city's land use law that has allowed one developer to finance several unpopular developments that neighbors have decried as megahouses.

The loophole that Dan Duffus, the founder of Soleil Development, discovered allows developers to build single-family housing on "substandard" lots---lots that are smaller than the minimum requirement for single-family development. Basically, the city requires a minimum lot size for single-family development, with the goal of preserving open space in Seattle's historic single-family neighborhoods.

The loophole 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 55 years ago, 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, as opposed to the usual minimum of 5,000. And that's what Dan Duffus did.

Duffus' company, Soleil, specializes in übermodern tall, narrow houses that frequently tower above than the surrounding single-family Craftsman homes that fill Seattle's older neighborhoods.

They are, frankly, pretty cool-looking---and, Duffus says, they provide infill housing in a city that frequently proclaims its desire to increase density but is reluctant to adopt policies that would actually achieve that goal. "We're affordable, green, and good for the environment," Duffus claims. The new rule, assuming it's adopted, would effectively mandate larger, suburban-style yards and shorter houses.

"Obviously, it's disconcerting that [the council is] trying to abuse their public powers by stopping [development] with an emergency ordinance," Duffus says, adding that his developments have "obviously struck a chord with people. It is something that needs to be looked at, but there is due process for that."

Neither Conlin nor the city's Department of Planning and Development have returned calls for comment. But, according to a DPD director's report on Conlin's legislation, DPD (which is overseen by Mayor Mike McGinn) believes the legislation is necessary because "development is occurring on lots that are so small that they are out of scale with the surrounding development pattern, and neighbors never would have expected that they could be separately developed."

Additionally, "the benefit of the development is accruing to developers who are familiar with arcane historic property and tax records, rather than to the owners of parcels the historic lot exception was intended to protect. ...

"Houses being built on undersized lots are sometimes taller than surrounding homes, or otherwise present imposing façades or inelegant forms, likely due to the desire to maximize potential floor area subject to constraints such as yard requirements that limit the potential building footprint on a small lot."

But is that a bad thing? Does every new house need to have a huge yard and be short and squat? Before Conlin proposed his legislation, the Seattle Weekly's Nina Shapiro, who wrote an article critical of Duffus' plans to build houses that "would tower over everything" nearby, "eradicate sunlight and privacy in everybody else's backyard, and mess with the neighborhood's historic character," seems to think so. But I'm not so sure.

If two houses on a few lots around town is too much, what will satisfy single-family neighborhood residents? A moratorium on three-story buildings? Design guidelines that dictate that new homes mimic 1940s Craftsman bungalows? Seattle's population is supposed to grow by 16 percent in the next eight years.Where will they go, if not in someone's backyard?
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