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Originally published May 19, 2014 at 8:12 PM | Page modified May 19, 2014 at 9:56 PM

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Seattle agrees to lower height limits of new houses on small lots

The Seattle City Council sides with neighbors over developers in limiting the height of houses on small lots in adopting rules aimed at guiding construction in single-family neighborhoods.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A majority of Seattle City Council members Monday sided with neighborhood activists and agreed to set lower height limits for homes built on small lots in single-family zones.

The council also voted down a provision known as the “100 percent rule” that would have allowed developers to build on undersized parcels if the property was the average size of others on the block.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, in one of her first votes on land-use legislation, said she’d received a flood of email from constituents concerned about development in their neighborhoods.

“Big developers have been pushing working-class Seattle residents around for years. I’m certainly not an expert on zoning, but I do believe residents should have some democratic control over their neighborhoods and some say in what is built there,” she said.

Developer advocate Roger Valdez said the new height limit of 18 feet plus a 5-foot pitched roof, or the average height of adjacent homes, whichever was greater, would only create more confusion and more issues for neighbors and the city to argue about.

“We’re still going to build single-family housing. We’re still going to build on small lots,” Valdez said after the vote.

The council slapped a moratorium on small-lot development in September 2012 after an outcry from neighbors over 30-foot-tall, modern houses on lots as small as 1,050 square feet that were permitted using obscure tax and mortgage records discovered by developers on historic, archived city maps.

The development of houses on what had been the side and backyards of their neighbors’ bungalows and Craftsman homes touched a nerve across the city over the pace and scale of construction and where the city would direct coming growth. Some council members noted that city plans call for growth to be concentrated in urban villages, urban centers and around transit stations and that single-family neighborhoods were never meant to add significant density.

“For those of us who believe Seattle must be a city that accommodates more people, we need allies in the neighborhood,” said Councilmember Nick Licata, who introduced the amendment eliminating the 100 percent rule. He said the new-home development on small lots “gives neighbors a sour taste of density” and doesn’t create affordable housing.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, chair of the Land Use and Planning Committee, said that the new regulations eliminated the most extreme small-lot development and give neighbors and developers more predictability about what can be built.

Under the new rules, no development will be permitted on lots smaller than 2,500 square feet. Many historic records can no longer be used to qualify a small lot as buildable. And neighbors will be provided notice and the right to appeal to a city hearing examiner any construction requests on lots smaller than 3,200 square feet.

O’Brien and Councilmember Sally Clark said the proposed 27-foot height would have given architects and builders more flexibility in the design of new homes in established neighborhoods.

But many homeowners testified before the committee vote and urged the City Council to lower the maximum allowable height so new construction would be more in scale with the surrounding neighborhood.

Others urged rejection of the “100 percent rule” saying it would create a new loophole for developers to build on small lots when the goal had been to eliminate loopholes.

“My neighborhood has seen egregious exploitation of codes by real-estate developers,” Alison Roxley told the council. “We all live in fear that any property may be razed, sliced and diced and replaced by some creation that looks nothing like what’s already in the neighborhood.”

Councilmember Tom Rasmussen proposed the lower height limit, noting that one of neighbors’ main concerns has been new houses that loom over those around them and eliminate the lawns, trees and open space that make a neighborhood pleasant.

“While people understand the need for infill development, they also want to make sure their homes, their investments, are not negatively impacted,” Rasmussen said. “It's not about keeping others out. It’s about welcoming them in within the context of the neighborhood that exists.”

The amendment to lower the height limit passed on a 5-4 vote with Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw, Jean Godden, Licata, Rasmussen and Sawant voting yes.

Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, Bruce Harrell and O’Brien voted no.

Eliminating the 100 percent rule was approved 6-3 with Burgess joining the majority.

The amended legislation was unanimously approved.

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

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