Tiny lots, big houses: Neighbors feeling squeeze despite ban
Neighbors say small-lot development has resulted in big, modern houses that are out of scale and character with their surroundings. The Seattle City Council on Monday is expected to extend a moratorium on such development.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The two circa 1930s wooden garages stood about 20 feet apart in adjacent yards, separated by a white picket fence in Seattle’s north Roosevelt neighborhood.
The elderly owner of one of the properties died. Her house was sold, and a developer subdivided the property and sought a permit from the city for a three-story, modern house on what had been the lawn and garage.
Neighbors hoped a City Council moratorium on small-lot development, adopted a year ago, would prevent the side yard from being developed. But just before the moratorium took effect, the city issued a permit to the builder, Byron Wetherholt of Classic City Homes, for the new house.
The lot on which he’s building is 1,760 square feet, far smaller than the underlying 5,000-square-foot zoning, and wouldn’t have been allowed under the moratorium, which could be extended by the City Council on Monday. The only notice the neighbors got about the Roosevelt development was a bulldozer leveling the old garage.
“The city says they’re following the rules, there’s nothing they can do. We feel very powerless,” said Deborah Clarke, the neighbor to the north.
Wetherholt said small-lot development creates construction jobs and provides families another housing option in the city.
“Houses come in all shapes and sizes. We think our home fits in with the wide variety of homes on the block, which vary in size, style and use of materials, and creates an interesting street scape,” he said.
The City Council on Monday is expected to vote to extend the small-lot moratorium for another six months. New rules were expected to have been adopted by now, but a draft proposal released in June received so many comments that the Department of Planning and Development is revising the proposed regulations and hopes to release them in the next two weeks, said Andy McKim, land-use planner supervisor.
“Developers were frustrated with the codes, neighbors were frustrated with what’s being built and planners wanted to tell us better ways to do things,” McKim said.
Neighborhood activists, including the group One Home Per Lot, complained that the proposed rules had too many loopholes that developers could get through. The group Neighbors for Notice is suing the city over a three-story home built in the back yard of a Green Lake bungalow.
City Councilmember Richard Conlin, who urged colleagues to adopt the moratorium a year ago, has argued for regulations that provide some predictability for neighbors about what can get built while still encouraging infill development in the city.
Conlin said he supports eliminating historic tax parcels, which the city says were not intended for legal building lots and don’t appear on city planning maps. Before the moratorium, these were being used by developers to qualify undersized lots. Conlin also supports a rule that would allow developers to build on a lot that was equal to the average lot size on a block, a recognition that some established neighborhoods have smaller lot sizes than the underlying zoning.
Developers have pressed the city to allow lots that are 80 percent of the average lot size on a block. They’re also asking for a height limit of 22 feet with a 5-foot pitched roof, for a total of 27 feet at the peak of the roof.
Roger Valdez, a spokesman for Smart Growth Seattle, a lobbying arm of some Seattle developers, said many older homes — including some in the north Roosevelt neighborhood — stand as high above the street as the modern one under construction.
“Many people want to live in single-family homes, and there are builders who are building great houses to meet that demand in our city rather than in outlying communities,” Valdez said.
Conlin said he thinks 22 feet on small lots isn’t too tall.
“Architects have told us there is a lot more flexibility at 22 feet,” he said.
Peter Krause of One House Per Lot argues for an 18-foot limit with a 5-foot pitched roof. He notes that 22 feet plus a 5-foot pitched roof gives developers the ability to add a third story, with each floor having 9-foot ceilings.
But Krause said, “Three stories is way too tall for the neighborhoods in which these houses are being built. If they were two stories, most neighbors would be a lot more open to them.”
Another contentious issue is notice. The city doesn’t post any land-use notice boards, even when the lot is undersized. State law requires that challenges to land-use decisions be filed within 21 days of the city issuing a permit. Most neighbors aren’t aware that a new home has been proposed on what appeared to be someone’s back or side yard until the excavators arrive.
But even suing in a timely manner is no guarantee of overturning a decision. Neighbors in the West Seattle Benchview area thought they had won a court ruling in July that disallowed one of three undersized lots proposed on the site of an existing view home because it didn’t meet the required minimum square footage.
But the Department of Planning and Development allowed the developer to redraw the lot lines and continue with plans for large, new homes on either side of the existing one.
“It’s very upsetting,” said David Allen, one of the Benchview neighbors who brought the lawsuit, which he said has cost about $30,000 to date. Allowing developers to build on undersized lots, Allen said, “cuts into the fabric of our neighborhoods.”
The north Roosevelt neighborhood, with the big house under construction, is now covered with yard signs that say “Stop Monster Houses” and “No Means No.”
Neighbors have attended City Council hearings, met with city land-use planners and tried to talk with the builder.
Clarke, the neighbor next door to the new home, sounds resigned when she talks about the new construction that she says is out of character and scale with the established neighborhood.
“We feel like our battle is lost. They won’t talk to us. It’s going up.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes
Information in this article, originally published Sept. 8, 2013, was corrected Sept. 9, 2013. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that One Home Per Lot was part of a lawsuit against the city of Seattle.