Steve Shay
Pictured left, with tie, is Roger Valdez, director, Smart Growth Seattle & right, Aaron Yankauskas, project manager for Dwell Northwest's two-house green development at 713 and 715 N. 77th St., in Greenwood near Ballard & Green Lake. New Seattle down-zoning will go into effect limiting houses on lots under 3,200 s.f. to be no higher than 18 feet. These two homes, which already passed earlier zoning code, are 22 feet tall, and on 3,000 s.f. lots. Some neighboring houses are still taller.

Big houses on small lots get a ruling from Seattle City Council, but some are still angry

By Steve Shay

A controversial development involving an older house bookended by two new tall houses in West Seattle's upscale Benchview neighborhood angered neighbors and sparked the Seattle City Council to enact a sweeping downzone affecting small single family lots and houses citywide. Developers in West Seattle, Ballard, and other neighborhoods with precious and pricy lots are taking note. So are longtime homeowners who counted on selling a vacant swath of their property or selling their house as a tear down to pay their retirement.

The Benchview development hugs the southeast corner of 55th Av. SW and SW Manning St, about four blocks west of Schmitz Park Elementary School. The two new houses, marketed by Blueprint Capital, and the existing home, offer panoramic views of Alki below, and shimmering Puget Sound beyond. The neighbors' beef? The new cribs were out of scale. The original house and property, a relatively large 11,500 square foot lot, sold for $860,000 to Ronald Day of Silverado Development according to King County records.

One neighbor told the West Seattle Herald, "When the (existing) house sold we thought, 'OK, they'll probably build a new second home on the lot.' But that third one where the garage used to be is wedged in. It looks terrible."

City Council Member and West Seattle resident, Tom Rasmussen, agreed. He amended a more relaxed zoning change offered by Council Member Mike O'Brien and members of the Planning Land Use and Sustainability (PLUS) Committee during a full Council meeting Monday, May 19. His amendment passed. It restricts building height on small lots to 18 feet and a 5-foot sloped roof if applicable, and one house per 2,500 to 3,200 s.f. single family-zoned lot. O'Brien wanted a 22-foot maximum height and 5-foot sloped roof. Voting with Rasmussen were Bagshaw, Licata, Sawant and Godden. Joining O'Brien were Burgess, Harrell and Clark.

According to the Seattle Weekly, "The source of the controversy is a zoning code loophole that allows developers to build on lots smaller than regulations allow if they qualify as 'historic,' that is they are demarcated in decades-old property and tax records. Often times, nobody knows about these lots until developers scour through the old records. The hidden lots are usually contained within a larger parcel that has long been treated as one property."

O'Brien gave opening remarks the morning of the vote, "Our legislation establishes height and bulk regulations for developments on lots less than 3,200 square feet with a 22-foot height maximum and a 5-foot slope pitched roof, with an absolute minimum lot size of 2,500 square feet...There are over one hundred thousand, '5,000 square foot lots' in Seattle, but 45,000 are slightly under 5,000 square feet because they were divided many years ago."

Council Member Clark asked him why 3,200 square feet was the threshold.

He replied, "If we required all houses under 5000 square feet to comply it would become too burdensome because so many exist. We captured what seemed to create a lot of the problems."

Roger Valdez is the director of Smart Growth Seattle, a 501(C)(4) non-profit that unashamedly promotes increased density living including micro apartments. It is funded by developers big and small, including Footprint, Touchstone, Master Builders Association, Vulcan, and Blueprint Capital which was involved with the Benchview properties.

He said he believes O'Brien's plan was reasonable, but Rasmussen's amendment to O'Brien's plan was "the worst of both worlds" and will result in increased confusion because the height restrictions take into account the average slope of lots on a block from a designated set-back. In other words, an 18-foot roof might be disallowed if the land slopes and the visual impression of a higher roof results. He also pointed out that you can build up to 30 feet if your lot is 5,000 square feet or more. He said that angry neighbors might feel emboldened to challenge this height, and even the 18-foot height.

"In my view Tom has made a big mistake." Valdez said of Rasmussen. "He undermined the delicate balance that we were trying to strike between maxing out the envelope and shutting it off completely. He's taken a bunch of value and homes off the table. If you are looking for a home right now there will be fewer choices.

"Homeowners selling side lots on their property tends to really upset neighbors," Valdez acknowledged. "Some don't like what they see as the disruption of more people moving in, the construction, parking issues, and possible loss of views. But it's better that people searching for a house live here rather than in Issaquah or Kent. These families won't have to drive as much. More amenities are available within walking distance, and there is more public transportation in densely-populated urban neighborhoods.

Added Valdez, "The City Council says 'Yeah, we want to grow, to be sustainable, to stop global warming and have a carbon neutral city,' but when it comes to actually building that city, the Council won't do it. They went for satisfying the people showing up angry rather than the people coming into Seattle in the future. We feel like we speak for them when we say, 'Make room for those people.'"

Aaron Yankauskas is project manager for Dwell Northwest's two-house development at 713 and 715 N. 77th Street in the trendy Greenwood/Ballard area. While the houses earned a 5-star Built Green Seattle" rating as do many of Dwell Northwest's homes, Yankauskas said the 22-foot high rooftops, and 3,000 square foot lot sizes have been properly permitted, but would not meet the new zoning codes. He pointed to a neighbor's house that is taller than 22 feet, and a somewhat weathered house directly across the street over 30 feet tall.

"For the most part, they're in context," he said of the new construction he builds on smaller urban lots. He also thinks his two dwellings on 77th St. fit right in, and said he has received compliments from neighbors. "One problem is that many homeowners don't know about the zoning where they live."

Asked if the new zoning would allow him to continue building such houses, he said, "You could probably pull it off but we'd have to drop the ceiling height and the house would feel cramped."

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