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Originally published Sunday, May 18, 2014 at 7:12 PM

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City Council to vote on new homebuilding rules for small lots

The Seattle City Council Monday will vote on regulations to guide small-lot development. Some neighborhood activists complain the rules will still allow out-of-scale development in areas zoned for single-family homes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

New small-lot development rules

The Seattle City Council will vote Monday on regulations to guide new construction in single-family zones. Lots smaller than 3,200 square feet will be subject to new rules:

• Development on lots smaller than 2,500 square feet no longer allowed.

• Building height limited to 22 feet plus a 5-foot pitched roof.

• Use of some historical records to qualify an undersized lot no longer allowed.

• Surrounding neighbors notified when a builder applies to develop a lot smaller than 3,200 square feet. Neighbors can appeal to a city hearing examiner.

• Neighbors won’t be notified when a property owner creates a substandard lot through a boundary line adjustment.

Public testimony will be taken at 2 p.m.

Source: Seattle city staff

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Nineteen months after the Seattle City Council slapped a moratorium on building homes on small lots, members will vote Monday on new regulations to guide development.

Seattle planning officials say the goal is to make new home construction on undersized parcels more consistent with the character of the neighborhood.

But activists who have protested some of the tall, modern homes that tower over bungalows say the proposed rules don’t go far enough. Houses up to 27 feet with a pitched roof will be allowed on lots smaller than 3,200 square feet, meaning builders can still go up three stories on streets where one- and two-story homes predominate.

“It’s extraordinarily disappointing,” said Erin Miller, a Montlake resident who lives across the street from a house wedged into a small backyard.

“They’re still trying to put the largest house possible on the smallest lot. I don’t know if that serves the community,” she said.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, chairman of the Planning and Land Use Committee, said the proposed legislation attempts to eliminate the most egregious examples of small-lot development and give both neighbors and builders more predictability about what’s allowed.

No development in single-family zones would be permitted on lots smaller than 2,500 square feet. Many historical records such as tax and mortgage documents that developers have submitted to qualify a small side yard or backyard as buildable could no longer be used. And neighbors would get notice and the right to appeal to a city hearing examiner for any developer requests to build on parcels less than 3,200 square feet.

“My goal has been to find a middle path that allows for reasonable development that’s consistent with the scale of the neighborhood, but still allows for infill development where appropriate,” O’Brien said last week when the committee approved the legislation and forwarded it to the full council.

Advocates for builders and developers say they’re generally pleased with the revised rules, saying new construction in existing single-family neighborhoods will add more supply and diversity to the city’s housing stock.

“We know there’s demand for new single-family homes in Seattle,” said Roger Valdez, director of Smart Growth Seattle, an advocacy organization funded by developers and builders.

Some neighborhood advocates say the notice provision isn’t adequate. State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, argues that while the new rules require neighbors to be alerted in some cases, it doesn’t include a lot-boundary adjustment that builders have sometimes used to create new small lots.

“A bulldozer showing up shouldn’t be neighbors’ first notice,” said Pollet, who, with State Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Seattle, unsuccessfully introduced legislation in Olympia during the past session that would have required notice of all undersized lot creation in Seattle.

Pollet also is concerned about the developers’ influence on the final version of the city legislation.

Smart Growth Seattle organized a tour of small-lot homes for O’Brien and city staff in April. Pollet, who went along in his own car, said the group used a city van and visited one new home that had replaced a neighborhood eyesore, but skipped another where neighbors had posted numerous yard signs opposed to the construction.

Valdez said the tour, which also included microhousing and low-rise development — two issues O’Brien’s committee will tackle in coming months — was meant to show how the new construction fit into the surrounding block, as opposed to just a photo of the three-story new home next to a small one.

He dismissed Pollet’s concerns as an attempt to raise the politician’s own profile for a potential City Council run. Asked to comment, Pollet didn’t rule out a future run but said he got involved because of constituents’ concerns over the neighborhood.

O’Brien said he participated in the developers tour because he’s had extensive meetings with neighborhood groups and activists concerned about out-of-scale construction.

“I’ve met with every group that wants to talk about small lots and reviewed every document they’ve sent me,” O’Brien said, adding that he wanted a comprehensive understanding of the issues.

The land-use committee was divided over one provision of the new regulations that might come up for another vote Monday. Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Nick Licata oppose a proposed “100 percent rule” that would allow developers to create new small lots by averaging the lot size on the same side of the street.

Burgess objected to creating another exception to the limits on small-lot development, saying it was a “poke in the eye” to the city’s goals of concentrating growth in urban centers, urban villages and around transit stations.

Dick Miller, who’s watched two big houses go up in the former backyard and side yard of a 1950s rambler in his West Seattle neighborhood, predicted many formerly working-class neighborhoods with small lots and small houses, such as Montlake, Wallingford and Ballard, would be particularly vulnerable under the 100 percent rule.

“Where there is a 1940s bungalow sitting on any size lot, the developers see it, buy it and maximize it. They put up two or three houses where there was one. Affordability goes out the window. So does character of the neighborhood,” Miller said.

But some owners of undeveloped property told the council they had held on to their small lots to help fund their retirement and didn’t want the city to limit development.

“People purchased these lots with the expectation that they were buildable,” said Richard Schwartz, who lives in the Lake Union area and owns two 25-foot lots in West Seattle.

“I understand that people in the neighborhoods are disturbed by some of these new homes, but it’s almost a snobbery. ‘Your house doesn’t look like my house.’ A lot of people like me are caught in the middle.”

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

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