CIty Hall

Council Committee Passes Small-Lot Compromise

The council's land-use committee passes an amended version of controversial, and complicated, legislation restricting development on "undersized" single-family lots.

By Erica C. Barnett May 6, 2014

The city council's planning and land use committee (chair Mike O'Brien and committee members Sally Clark, Nick Licata, and Tim Burgess—four of the nine council members) unanimously passed an amended version of legislation regulating so-called "small-lot development"—single-family houses built on lots that are smaller than the minimum lot size in a particular area—legislation that we, in a statement we stand by, referred to as "Byzantine and slightly baffling." 

However, the legislation is important, and not just for homeowners who live next to small lots that might be developed. It's a microcosm of the larger debate happening across the city about density and affordability—from tiny micro-apartments to small-lot single-family houses, neighborhood residents are battling over how much new development is OK, and how (and where) to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of new residents that are expected to move to Seattle in the next few decades. 

The legislation, which resulted from neighborhood complaints about tall, skinny houses (usually not actually huge, but often modern in design) being built on small lots adjacent to existing single-family homes, places new restrictions on the size of lots that can be developed and on the height of new houses that can be built on those lots. 

The proposal probably doesn't go far enough to placate some house owners, like the man who testified at today's meeting that allowing houses on smaller lots "has already started to destroy the integrity of our neighborhoods," but it was good enough for small-lot development advocate Roger Valdez of Smart Growth Seattle, who called it "a consistent, sensible way to achieve what council member [Mike] O'Brien and [Sally] Clark supported: Scaled, reasonable, new infill development."

At today's meeting, just before jumping into the details of the proposal, O'Brien said, "My goal throughout this whole process has been to find a path in the middle … that prevents the egregions examples [of small-lot houses] from happening and to allow some level of development that’s appropriate." 

Here are the highlights of what the legislation, which still has to be passed by the full council, would do: 

• It allows development on lots smaller than the zoning size for an area under certain circumstances.

Two, to be precise: First, if a lot is at least 75 percent the size of the lot size for its zone (say, 3,750 feet in a 5,000-square-foot zone) and its block face (the part of the lot facing the street) is at least 80 percent the length of the average lot on that block, it's OK to build a single-family house on that smaller lot. Additionally—in the so-called "100 Percent Rule" amendment the committee adopted today—if a lot is at least 100 percent of the size of the average lot on the block it's on, it's also OK to build there. 

City staffers said their analysis found that the 100 percent rule would only potentially apply to about 250 lots across the city (not all of which, obviously, will be developed). 

• It allows homeowners to build as tall as 22 feet, or 27 feet if they build a pitched, rather than a flat, roof. (People seem more comfortable with pitched roofs, which look more "traditional"—Craftsman-like—than modern, flat-roofed houses). This provision also eliminates a proposed limitation on the number of stories inside a single-family house, which, council members noted, was less of a concern for neighbors than the total height of adjacent houses. 

• It allows existing homeowners to add an additional story to their homes in most circumstances. Initially, the legislation would have prevented some people who own houses on lots smaller than 3,750 square feet from adding an extra story, something several folks brought up in public comment today. The amendment allows anyone with a house that existed prior to February 2013 to add an extra story, subject to height limits.

• And it puts off to a later date the question of whether nearby homeowners should be notified when a land owner plans to build on an undersized lot, with the understanding that, according to the language of the amendment, "it is the Council’s intent to consider alternative or additional notice requirements for actions, such as lot boundary adjustment applications, to allow near neighbors to apprise themselves of likely future development." 

Small-lot development supporters have argued that neighbors only want land-use notice so they can have a chance to sue developers and stop them from building new infill in their neighborhoods. 

The full council could vote on the small-lot legislation as soon as Monday, May 19.

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