Small lot rules

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We adopted new rules on small lot infill houses Monday, rules I believe will stop the terrible “grain silo” and “alley skyscraper” houses that popped up on previously unrecognized lots all over the city. More on these new rules in a moment, though. First, context setting.

At a breakfast Monday someone asked me “what’s hot” in Seattle right now besides minimum wage and the nomination of a new chief of police. I almost always reply solving homelessness, but this morning I said “development.” Reaction (most often negative) to development in neighborhoods all over the city; the concern for trees as we densify; the desire for jobs in outer neighborhoods; the desire for affordability; the demand for good, respectful design – all of these fill and refill my inbox these days.

We live today in another development boom. The pace and scale can make you dizzy — and angry – depending upon where you stand. I hear from people in Capitol Hill, Wallingford, West Seattle, Ballard and elsewhere about quaint, older houses coming down and new apartments or micros going in; about poor transitions in the low-rise areas, view blockage and jagged height differences between old and new.

I also hear about the difficulty in finding a reasonably affordable place to live in Seattle, and about having great rhetoric about growth, but then not having the stomach for it.

Maybe I should have replied that the rhetoric about development is hot. Most Seattle-ites I talk with recognize that cities grow and change over time. Most people I talk with say they’re not anti-density; they just want density done right. And quite a few people these days are fed-up, organizing, protesting and lobbying for change. One Home Per Lot is an example of a new group focused on improving development standards and alerting neighbors earlier about neighborhood development.

Those voices helped shape the small lot development rules we put in place today and will help shape the Council’s upcoming action on new development rules for micro apartments and revisions to the low-rise zone regulations adopted in 2010.

Out of various conversations and emails I’ve defined a few guiding principles for this work.

  • Being for good design and neighborhood character isn’t anti-development.
  • Being for infill isn’t the same thing as wanting to destroy what make Wallingford, West Seattle, Ballard and Capitol Hill great.
  • The city’s urban village and urban center-based strategy continues to be the best blueprint for growth.
  • Density doesn’t necessarily lead to affordability.

OK, with those principles in mind, back to the small lot development rules we adopted today. As a reminder, I joined with colleagues in 2012 to severely curtail development on under-sized lots. We’d seen in the preceding year a new way of defining these smaller lots using historic tax records. Houses appeared on property neighbors never thought could accommodate a house. The negative impact on development patterns and the shock to neighbors was “significant” (bureaucrat-speak for really big).

Since the interim development controls were passed in 2012, Department of Planning & Development staff worked with neighborhood advocates and developers on a set of rules to guide development of under-sized lots – including defining how under-sized lots come to be.

Seattle’s single family neighborhoods are comprised of SF 5000, SF 7,200 and SF 9,600 (all square feet). You’d think that means that the lots in these zones are those sizes. Surprise – 45% of the lots in the SF 5000 zone measure less than 5,000 square feet. Plenty of you reading this live in houses on lots measuring less than 5,000 square feet. Many of you live next door to someone with a larger lot, one that could be divided.

There are unscrupulous developers looking for those opportunities and there are great developers looking for those opportunities. There are also perfectly well-meaning property owners who have planned retirement based on gain from an undeveloped small lot. The rules we passed need to yield good scale and “fit,” no matter the intentions of the owner.

The rules we passed today cure the most egregious of the fouls we saw before the 2012 interim controls.

  • New small lot houses will go no higher than 18 feet (plus five feet for a roof peak) or the average of surrounding house wall heights, whichever is higher. I had supported a height limit of 22 feet (plus five feet for a roof peak). I worry that the option to choose the higher of 18 feet (plus five for a roof peak) or the average of surrounding homes may yield some unfortunately tall structures. Seattle is a city of hills. We’ll see how this plays out.
  • No more use of historic tax lines to get a lot recognized. If it wasn’t a legal lot by 1957, it can’t be now.
  • The depth of a new small lot house will be limited to no more than twice the width.
  • We adopted new notice and comment requirements so neighbors know about a new small lot proposal before the backhoes arrive and can appeal the DPD decision to the City Hearing Examiner.

One much debated proposal that was killed at Full Council would have allowed a builder to build a house on a smaller lot at least equal in size to the average size of the surrounding lots. This new proposal would have primarily allowed development on lots in neighborhoods where the existing lot size was between 3,750 and 2,500 square feet. This was called the 100% rule. I supported the idea because, for me, it matched my goal of better scale and fit. If an area is already small-scale, and if we have the hard stop of 2,500 square feet, why not allow development that matches the existing scale? A majority of councilmembers felt differently and the provision was stripped from the final legislation.

That’s it for small lots for now. Get ready for micros. They’re next up for Council review.