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Regulatory Reform Package Approved by Council

On Monday, July 23, the Council unanimously approved Council Bill 117430, a regulatory reform package that makes a series of modest changes to land use regulations.  Consistent with Economic Recovery Resolution 31282, adopted in 2011, these changes will promote economic development by making regulatory processes less convoluted and allowing more creativity in business locations and operations.

The package is based on a set of recommendations announced last fall by a task force of business, labor, environmental, and neighborhood representatives who worked with the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) to develop the proposal.  Councilmembers and staff reviewed the proposal and agreed to advance the most promising of the recommendations.  Elements of the ordinance approved by the Council include:

  • Encouraging home-based businesses by allowing up to two non-resident employees, allowing structural alterations that would be consistent with zoning, and permitting limited use of outbuildings and advertising.
  • Modifying the regulations covering detached accessory dwelling units by permitting them on through lots, with various housing types including townhouses, and allowing more flexibility in height.
  • Allowing renewals of most temporary use permits to be processed as Type I, rather than Type II, decisions.
  • Extending the existing code provision that allows developers with projects in urban centers and station area overlays to make decisions about the number of parking stalls they will build based on market demand (rather than an arbitrary City minimum requirement) to include all uses on multifamily- and commercial-zoned lots in urban villages that are located within a quarter-mile of a frequently served transit stop.
  • Reducing by 50% the minimum parking requirements that apply on multifamily- and commercial-zoned lots that are located outside of an urban center, station area overlay or urban village but within a quarter-mile of a frequently served transit stop.
  • Adopting revised standards for SEPA review in urban centers and urban villages with station area overlays where growth targets have not been met, exempting small and medium size projects from SEPA analysis.  Since SEPA was adopted, many new, specific regulations have been codified that cover most of the issues subject to SEPA for small and medium size developments.  Additionally, as part of the regulatory reform package, DPD’s authority to require developers to address transportation impacts and historic preservation issues (see companion Council Bill 117524) was codified.
  • Modifying the City’s street-level use requirements to allow ground floor residential units in most Commercial 1 and Neighborhood Commercial 2 and 3 zones.  Some of these areas are not suitable locations for the ground floor commercial uses that are currently required, and this change will prevent the continued proliferation of vacant storefronts in such areas.  However, within designated pedestrian (P) zones and about 60 potential P zone areas identified by the Council, existing street-level use requirements will continue to apply. The Council also tasked DPD with further evaluating the potential P zone areas over the next year to determine whether they should be given the P zone designation or if ground floor residential uses should be permitted in these areas.

While most of these proposals raised little controversy, the Council did specific reviews of the three issues that seemed of the greatest concern and made some modifications to the legislation in response.

  1. There was significant controversy over a proposal to allow small commercial uses in multi-family areas in urban centers and station area overlays, especially on Capitol Hill, which includes more than half of the area that would have been affected by this proposal.  After considerable discussion, the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee decided to remove this proposal from the package.  While I thought the proposal had merit, the suggested benefits were generally modest and there were many public concerns.
  2. The proposal on parking requirements has been consistently misrepresented, and Councilmembers noted that this was a modest expansion of the current code (large areas of the City are already exempt from mandatory parking requirements) and that it in no way prohibits parking – it merely leaves the number of spaces up to market factors.  However, with input from the Planning Commission, the Council did scale back the Executive’s original proposal by retaining existing parking requirements in industrial zones and reducing by 50% – rather than eliminating – the minimum parking requirements that apply in certain frequent transit service areas that are located outside urban centers, station area overlays, and urban villages.
  3. Councilmembers were concerned that limiting SEPA review could curb DPD’s authority to require landmark review, manage construction impacts, and require transportation mitigation.  We also wanted to make sure that there was still a real opportunity for public and community involvement.  Provisions extending DPD’s authority to require transportation impact evaluations were included in DPD’s original legislation, a companion bill that codified citywide landmark referral thresholds was prepared and approved by the Council, and DPD was able to document that they would continue to have authority over the other issues, and that there would continue to be opportunities for public involvement and legal challenges to projects through Design Review and other public processes.  The PLUS Committee also reduced the size of commercial developments that would be exempt from SEPA and added a provision requiring any projects exempted to be at least 50% residential.

This legislation moves the land use code in the direction of more flexibility and less rigidity.  My goal is to focus on outcomes and standards that are clearly necessary, and to encourage developers to be able to use creativity in project design and development in order to meet those standards.  As we move Seattle in the direction of becoming more welcoming to denser development around transit facilities, we should promote good development, rather than trying to stop development because some of it is problematic.  We do have or can create the tools to guide development in a positive direction, and we should emphasize that as the goal.

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