Yesterday was Day Two of the world’s most important Seattle Office of the Hearing Examiner hearing.
I’m not entirely goofing you: The Queen Anne Community Council has appealed a city department of planning ruling that easing restrictions on mother-in-law apartments and backyard cottages (ADUs and DADUs, respectively) in Seattle’s single family zones doesn’t require a broader environmental review. The QACC—which says adding that kind of development potential will burden things like parking and utility infrastructure, upend the fabric of single family neighborhoods, and create a real estate speculation boom and spike housing costs—thinks a broader environmental impact statement (EIS) is in order. An official EIS will slow down the process and give opponents more opportunities to stop the policy.
City council member Mike O’Brien proposed the ADU/DADU legislation in May to incentivize more ADU/DADU production by loosening the owner-occupancy requirement, getting rid of the parking requirement, allowing two add ons per property instead of just one, and allowing DADUs on smaller lots while increasing the allowed square footage of DADUs. Even though that last change seems like a green light for garish, clunky development, it actually makes sense proportionally because the limit on the amount of your lot that can be developed overall, including your house and your ADU and your DADU, isn’t changing; it will still be 1,000 square feet plus 15 percent of the lot for lots under 5,000 square feet and 35 percent of the lot for lots over 5,000 square feet.
O’Brien’s legislation to boost production of ADUs and DADUs makes good on one of mayor Ed Murray’s housing affordability and livability (HALA) recommendations to provide more housing.
While all that may sound like a picayune policy debate (yesterday’s hearing did take up “side sewer permitting” and the only people in the audience besides me were one other print reporter, a retired city planner who’s still evidently obsessed, and two seniors who wandered into the wrong hearing room before being escorted out to the right meeting), a huge issue is at stake: The city’s intent to add density to single family family zones and the traditional neighborhood’s intent to make sure that never happens. This standoff has been an Existential matter in Seattle since the neighborhood planning process of the late 1980s formally empowered single family neighborhoods to hold the line on growth, and it continues to be the flash point as thousands of new people move here every year.
You can read my brief about Day One of the hearing (where the debate focused on whether the proposed changes would create a tipping point that transformed single family homes into property income assets for speculators rather than equity investments for families) and follow my live tweets here. I also tweeted yesterday’s proceedings.
The city’s Office of Planning and Community Development, which is defending the O’Brien policy, scored two major points yesterday, while I’d say the QACC, represented by local attorney Jeff Eustis and Queen Anne Community Council leader Martin Kaplan, scored one major point.
One of the city’s witnesses yesterday, John Shaw, a strategic advisor with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection who focuses on parking impacts, turned Eustis’ parking data on its head to make a pretty profound defense for the city; I should also say that Eustis tried to bar Shaw from testifying, arguing that he didn’t have standing, but the hearing examiner, Sue Tanner, kind of an awesome Professor Minerva McGonagall character, overruled his objection.
Eustis pushed Shaw on the impacts of parking by trying to get him to agree with the seemingly obvious statement that increasing the number of residents on a property would de facto increase the number of cars. (On average, there are 2.06 people per house in Seattle and about 1.4 cars per household.) “Wouldn’t you agree,” Eustis pressed Shaw, that going from one household to three would triple the number of cars?
But Shaw maintained that “size matters;” so, while yes, there’s an average 1.4 cars per household, he pointed out that the likelihood of car ownership decreases as house size gets smaller. Not only did this upend Eustis’s generic math equation by underscoring that DADU residents would be the faction that drags down the car ownership average, but it simultaneously highlighted that DADU’s aren’t apartment buildings, they're units for just one person.
Nick Welch, the OPCD staffer (who wrote the report on O’Brien’s legislation that the QACC contests), seconded Shaw’s argument that the proposed code changes wouldn’t cause a parking nightmare. Welch pointed out during his testimony that in Portland, where ADU and DADU rules also come with no off-street parking requirement, two thirds of the ADU/DADU residents don’t have a car taking up any on-street parking.
In addition to the parking debate, the second big point in the city’s column yesterday came during another part of Welch’s testimony. (Welch, by the way, is the guy noted in my tweet above who has an M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University in Boston.) Welch began his testimony with what seems to be the city’s strongest argument: O’Brien’s legislation doesn’t change current rules about how many people can live on a single-family lot. It’s eight (unrelated) people now, and it will be eight under the changes, even if you add an ADU and a DADU into the equation. This raises a damning question for the QACC: If O’Brien’s legislation doesn’t increase the bar on the number of people that are allowed to live in a neighborhood overall, then what’s the issue?
I’ll wait to hear the QACC’s response (the hearings don’t pick up again until September 30; I know! I know! Can you take it? But at least it’ll get here sooner than Season Two of Stranger Things.) But in the QACC’s favor, I’d say: If the average household in Seattle is around 2.06 people, then clearly, reaching the eight limit isn’t very common. And certainly, having three different units on a lot would, by definition, put you higher than the 2.06 average. Ultimately, though, that doesn’t strike me as compelling legal challenge to O’Brien’s proposal given that, again, he isn’t legally allowing any more people.
The one big point QACC’s attorney scored yesterday came during his cross examination of Welch. During Welch’s initial testimony, the city established that Welch had done a ton of research—looking at data about peer cities' ADU/DADU programs (including environmental impacts), examining the data on Seattle’s current experience with ADUs and DADUs, and interviewing “hundreds” of Seattle residents who’d had experience, questions and concerns about ADUs and DADUs. The testimony seemed to make the point that the QACC’s main complaint—that the city hadn’t examined potential impacts—wasn’t true, and actually, it was just that the QACC disagreed with the city’s findings.
But during the cross examination, Eustis got Welch to say his research (which Eustis noted wasn’t cited in the report’s germane footnotes) didn’t apply to the specific proposal. It was a curious, very bad, moment for the city.