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Monday, April 1, 2013 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

Would new rules leave loopholes for big houses on small lots?

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter

The 1924 house, with clematis blooming under dormer windows and a lawn edged by rhododendrons and a maple tree, stood essentially unchanged for 80 years on a Laurelhurst street.

Last year, a bulldozer arrived and tore up the 30-foot-wide side yard. In its place rose a three-story modern house that covered all but 10 feet of the old house’s lawn and garden.

John Taylor, who lives directly behind the new home, describes its looming presence over his back yard as “a guard tower.” He said the neighbors had no notice from the city or the developer that a new house was being crammed in between two existing houses, on what had been the old house’s yard.

“The city identified the side yard as a separate building site even though it had never been taxed as such and had never been bought and sold as such,” Taylor said. “What offends me is that it’s completely unexpected and random.”

The Seattle City Council slapped a moratorium on small-lot development in September. Now the city Department of Planning and Development has proposed new regulations to make building on substandard lots more predictable and in keeping with the existing neighborhood character.

The department has asked for public comments by Wednesday, before it drafts its final proposal.

Under the new rules, no lot smaller than 2,000 square feet — less than 0.05 of an acre — could be developed, and the height of new construction would be limited to 18 feet plus a 5-foot pitched roof. The new rules would eliminate the use of historic tax parcels — which don’t appear on current city land-use maps — as a basis to qualify a lot smaller than the neighborhood zoning specifies.

The 18-foot height limit could be exceeded if the developer chose a different permit type that required notice to the neighbors.

And the rules don’t prohibit the use of existing side or back yards to create a new, undersized lot.

A coalition of residents around the city, organized as One Home Per Lot, says the proposed regulations are too easy to work around. The proposal does away with use of the historic tax parcels, such as in the Laurelhurst lot division, but doesn’t address a property owner who might use old deeds, historic sales contracts or historic building permits.

“My biggest disappointment is that there are so many exceptions and loopholes,” said Peter Krause, a Green Lake resident whose neighborhood is suing the city over lack of notice about a three-story, 1,050-square-foot house built in the back yard of an existing bungalow.

“We think 2,000 square feet is too small. Why does the city allow these undersized lots at all?” he asked.

Developers and density advocates argue that infill development in existing single-family neighborhoods creates more housing options and helps the city meet its targets under the Growth Management Act, meant to reduce regional sprawl.

“The true story is not greedy developers coming in and destroying the neighborhood. The story is more housing, more construction jobs, more people moving into a neighborhood,” said Roger Valdez, a density and transit advocate who represents developers as spokesman for the group Smart Growth Seattle.

Smart Growth Seattle supports the 2,000-square-foot minimum lot size. But it is asking the city to increase the allowable height to 22 feet plus a 5-foot pitched roof on any lot smaller than 3,200 square feet. It also supports elimination of the historic tax parcel qualification, if the city adopts what it calls an “80 percent rule.”

That would allow developers to build a back-yard or side-yard house if the new lot is 80 percent of the average lot size on the block — for example, a 3,200-square-foot lot if the block average is 4,000 square feet, even if the zoning in the neighborhood requires 5,000-square-foot lots or larger.

The One Home Per Lot group says the 80 percent rule would lead to smaller and smaller lots being created over time throughout the city.

Sue Donaldson, a former city councilmember, lives uphill and across the street from the new three-story Laurelhurst house. It cuts off about half of her view of Lake Washington.

She said the city’s permitting of substandard lots “goes in the face of the hallmark of land-use planning, which is predictability.” To surrounding homeowners, she said, it can mean a loss of light, privacy and home value.

Donaldson notes that the new proposal doesn’t require notice to neighbors. It also doesn’t, as some density advocates have argued, produce affordable housing, she said.

The old, clematis-covered house and side yard sold to a developer for $815,000 in 2012. It was resold without the side yard for $760,000. The new 3-story home next door is expected to list for $1.5 million.

“I support the idea of density, but it needs to fit into the character and scale of the neighborhood,” she said.

In the Montlake neighborhood, a developer built a full-size, three story house in the back yard of an existing brick home using a historic tax parcel.

The new house is at an angle to the street and doesn’t have the same front-yard setback as all the other homes on the block.

Erin Miller, a neighbor and member of One House Per Lot, questions whether the city Department of Planning and Development is working for all Seattle residents or only for developers.

“I expect remodeling, but not a whole new house in the back yard. We’re paying taxes, too. There needs to be some balance.”

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes