Tuesday, October 2, 2012

City’s new small-lot rules not relevant here

Acting in response to citizen complaints about out-sized houses being built on tiny residential lots, the City Council recently passed “emergency” legislation that puts a moratorium on certain kinds of property development until the Council studies the problem and comes up with a new set of permanent regulations.  It doesn’t appear, however, that the either the temporary rules now in place for small lots or the new ordinance, when it’s eventually passed, will have much if any impact on the course of residential development here in Madison Park.

What the Council’s action does is establish a short-term height limit of 22 feet for single-family residences newly built on small residential lots.  To qualify to construct a house of this height (equating to two stories), the lot must contain at least 2,500 sq. ft. That’s about half the lot size of most residential properties in Madison Park.  Lots that are smaller than 2,500 sq. ft. will not qualify for construction of a multi-story residence at this time—with one huge exception.  If there’s already a house on the property, the owner may renovate or add space to the property or even build a second dwelling unit (a “backyard cottage”) on it, so long as other code requirements (such as set-back, height-restriction and lot coverage rules) are met.  The height restriction in Madison Park is generally 30 feet (three stories).

It doesn’t appear that Madison Park has any tiny unbuilt-on properties that fit into the grandfathered “legal nonconforming lot” category that the city council in now trying to better control. It’s difficult to identify such properties, since they are primarily lots that are not platted or specifically designated in property records, even though they exist as separate tax parcels on the city’s rolls.  Certain developers have been scouring public records in order to identify, buy, and develop these “off the grid” properties in a way that “creates housing that is not compatible with neighboring single family houses,” in the words of Councilmember Richard Conlin.

Other Seattle neighborhoods---including Queen Anne, Greenwood, Wallingford and even Laurelhurst---have been seeing this kind of development over the past few years; and it has provoked outrage by many surrounding property owners who suddenly discover that what had always been a neighbor’s side yard or backyard is now the construction site of a new three-story house.  Conlin cites an example of such a house being built on a lot of only 1,050 sq. ft.  A website, www.onehomeperlot.com, initiated earlier this year to chronicle this kind of development, shows 61 examples of houses supposedly built on legal nonconforming lots.  The list is entitled “Homes that are driving Seattle neighborhoods nuts.”

This house in Ravenna was "wedged" into a sideyard

The Seattle Weekly, which covered this topic in July, may have provided a catalyst for the city council to take its action.  Focusing principally on the efforts of Dan Duffus and his Soliel Development company, the Weekly came down squarely against the developer’s “rampant exploitation of an obscure zoning loophole.”  Various neighbors of Duffus’s developments cried foul in the article, stating that the character of their neighborhoods was being changed by this unwelcome, nonconforming style of squeezed-in housing.  Duffus, who claimed he was adding the City’s housing stock by building energy efficient houses on legal lots, was unapologetic for doing so.  But the council in September officially took a dimmer view of his actions.  A new ordinance dealing with these small lots will be researched, written and proposed to the council sometime next Spring.

This is a sideyard development in Fremont

Madison Park has a mix of residential zoning, including three kinds of low-rise multi-family family housing areas, along with both SF 5000 and SF 7200 residential development areas.  These single-family designations mean that the standard lot size for these areas will be either 5,000 or 7,200 sq. ft.  In fact, many if not most Madison Park lots are much smaller than zoning would now require.  That’s because the neighborhood—like most in Seattle—was developed before the principal zoning laws came into effect in 1957.   There are multiple tiny lots in the neighborhood, though it appears that all of these already have residential structures on them and would therefore not fall under the prohibitions of the new small-lot ordinance.  But we can’t know for sure.  Somewhere, a separate tax parcel may be hiding out there just waiting for development.

As we have discussed in past columns, many Madison Parkers are upset with the kind of development that is taking place in the neighborhood. Large, boxy modern structures are replacing quaint cottages and in their opinion the idealized “village” character of Madison Park is slowly being destroyed.  But looking at most of the small-lot examples of houses that are supposedly driving other Seattle neighborhoods “nuts”, it seems that for the most part the construction elsewhere is not that different from much of the much of the construction underway here.

In Madison Park, at least in terms of the size and style of new housing, “nonconforming” and “incompatible” are more the norm than the exception.  New small-lot rules will certainly not change that reality.

[Photos of houses in other neighborhoods courtesy of OneHomePerLot.com.  Photo of 2032 41st Avenue E., courtesy of Redfin.]


  1. Buyer beware, I say. The resale history of the 3,000 sq ft houses jammed onto 4,000 sq ft lots is not pretty. Sooner or later buyers will wise up.

  2. I like the little houses that fill in unused space in existing neighborhoods. They're cute, efficient, and affordable. They make room for more people in-city, so we don't need so much suburban sprawl or car exhaust.

    The giant 0-lot-line houses I could do without. They have all the negatives of changing the look of a neighborhood, without the positives of efficiency or affordability.

  3. Seattle Department of Planning and Development officials are making a fortune off of the kickbacks necessary to get these kinds of projects past the zoning requirements.

  4. thanks for sharing.


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