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Originally published September 9, 2012 at 7:45 PM | Page modified September 10, 2012 at 6:59 PM

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Corrected version

Backyard houses catch the eye of City Council

The Seattle City Council is considering a moratorium on small-lot houses — houses built in the backyards of other houses.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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When their longtime neighbor sold his bungalow last fall, Peter Krause and Ruth Vega said they wouldn't have been surprised if the house was leveled and a bigger house built to replace it. That had already happened twice on the block of modest homes between Wallingford and Green Lake.

They did get a new house, but it was built in the backyard of the bungalow, just 10 feet from its backdoor and 5 feet from Vega's property line. At three stories tall, it towers over the surrounding homes and presents a massive shingled wall to the adjacent yards.

"It's like the neighborhood bully," said Krause, who lives next door to Vega. "It strips away privacy, slashes property values and blocks sunlight on the other side."

Now the city is considering a moratorium on these small-lot houses, addressing a loophole in the Seattle building code. Currently, developers can build on smaller-than-allowed lots if there's a historical record, often dating back more than 50 years, of additional parcels associated with a home.

The parcels don't exist on the city's current land-use maps, and city officials say they may have been created for tax purposes, not construction. They were grandfathered in when the land-use codes were written in 1957, but only uncovered over the past few years by resourceful developers.

City Councilmember Richard Conlin, chairman of the planning and land-use committee, has asked for an emergency ordinance that would halt creation of new substandard lots while the city develops regulations for their use.

His proposal will be heard by the full council Monday and requires a three-fourths vote for approval. A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Thursday in the planning committee.

The proposal pleases neighbors across the city who estimate that more than 100 of these houses have been built in back and side yards, with no notice required to the surrounding residents.

But it's angered developers who say the small-lot construction is a bright spot in the sluggish housing market and helps the city meet its goals of increased density. And they say many of these houses are owned by elderly people who are counting on the additional income from the second lot to finance their retirement.

"This seriously affects people who are relying on the income. They know they own something that can be subdivided," said Gabriel Rosenshine, a real-estate broker who specializes in infill properties in Seattle.

He said he expected the city to examine the issue before the end of the year but objects to a moratorium being imposed so quickly.

"What we don't understand is why this has to happen in less than one week. Where is the due process?" Rosenshine asked.

The debate in Seattle about how to accommodate new development in old neighborhoods has been going on for decades. Council President Sally Clark, former chairwoman of the land-use committee, notes that skinny houses and houses that had nothing but a garage facing the street, are other versions of infill whose design the city has sought to regulate.

"The balancing act is how to have new construction that is sensitive to the surroundings and in proportion and scale to the existing homes," Clark said.

Conlin said the emergency ordinance wouldn't ban small-lot development but would end the use of historic property-tax records as a basis for qualifying a new lot. And it would limit the height to two stories, which he said would reduce the impact.

"We're in favor of infill. We're in favor of density, but we want it done in a way that respects the existing neighborhood," Conlin said.

On the street of historic bungalows near Green Lake, Vega is planning to re-landscape her backyard to provide some privacy from the three-story house that now rises on the other side of her fence.

She said that as a first-time homebuyer in an established neighborhood, she never expected a second house to be built in the backyard of the one already there.

"I expected one house per lot," she said. "I feel like I've lost some of the value of my home."

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

On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

Information in this article, originally published Sept. 9, 2012, was corrected Sept. 10, 2012. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect time for Thursday's public hearing.

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