The complexities of subdividing land for fun and profit cannot be understated. And I am not just talking about trying to understand the code. Moving forward with a subdivision looks like a daunting affair. The code here is really confusing because much of it is a rehash of state law requiring that the City adopt, in ordinance, rules on subdividing land. I’ll start with that first. But Seattle needs to deregulate short subdivisions, leaving most of the work to the Planning and Development Commission and planning professionals, rather than hauling short subdivisions through the Master Use Permitting process.
As I suggested in the last post much of Subtitle II is required by state law, specifically RCW 58.17. In fact, a couple of things I was baffled by and point out are pulled right out of state law. The exemptions, including cemeteries, industrial land, and mobile homes, are pulled straight from RCW 58.17.040.
More importantly, state law draws a distinction between subdivisions of 5 or more lots, called a subdivision, and divisions into 4 lots or less, called a short subdivision. A local government can allow a division up to 9 lots and still regulate it using the rules that apply to a short subdivision, including counties as long as the subdivision is within an urban growth area.
The distinction between the two is important as is the term “division” and “plat.” The division is the action. I have a big piece of land and I want to divide it into smaller pieces for resale or to develop them for resale. A plat is the representation on map of my proposed division.
The process to get approval for the action I want to take is a “preliminary plat” process, followed by “final plat” approval. I mention this because “platting” or “platting process” (as a gerund or a participle) gets used often, and strictly speaking–I think–it’s incorrect. Probably the most appropriate way to describe what I’d be doing as a property owner is “I am seeking a subdivision of my property and I have submitted a preliminary plat for review.”
In any event, the major difference between subdivisions and short subdivisions is that one is explicitly regulated by the state and other by local government. The distinction is explained well on the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) of Washington’s website:
Subdivisions, other than short subdivisions, are to be regulated by cities and counties according to the procedures set out in chapter 58.17 RCW. So, local ordinances adopting subdivision procedures must conform to the procedures set out in chapter 58.17 RCW. The statutory procedures involve a two-step process for the approval of subdivisions, “preliminary plat” approval followed by “final plat” approval. Compliance with local ordinances such as those dealing with zoning, road standards, shorelines, utilities, and drainage is required for subdivision and short subdivision approval.
However, short subdivisions are the domain of local government.
No process is set out in state law for approval of short plats; cities and counties are required by RCW 58.17.060 to adopt by ordinance their own regulations and procedures that provide “summary approval” of short plats through an administrative process. Because it must be an administrative process, there is no public hearing for a short plat application, and the legislative body is not involved in the process.
But Seattle, it appears, has adopted a process for short subdivisions that mirrors the subdivision process and includes going through the Master Use Permitting process in SMC 23.76, the purpose of which is to
promote informed public participation in discretionary land use decisions, eliminate redundancy in the application submittal process, and minimize delays and expense in appeals of land use decisions.
Something about “public participation” and “minimize delays and expense” seems oxymoronic to me. If I understand RCW 58.17.060 correctly it isn’t necessary to run any short subdivision of a lot into 2-8 smaller lots through the Master Use Permit (MUP) process (described here in a Client Assistance Memo from the Department of Planning and Development). Here’s what state law says on short subdivisions:
The legislative body of a city, town, or county shall adopt regulations and procedures, and appoint administrative personnel for the summary approval of short plats and short subdivisions or alteration or vacation thereof.
Now I could be misreading this (it is convoluted) but Seattle not only folds short subdivisions into the MUP process but adds requirements not found in state law maximizing the retention of existing trees.
Most of the requirements of Subtitle II are from state law and involve a lot of maps, site plans, and due diligence for ensuring proper drainage, access to the lots, and compliance with other rules and regulations. Most of this is handled administratively. Vacations are still handled by the City Council which is required by state law.
In the spirit of my earlier proposal, I would suggest that all of this be handled by the Planning and Development Commission. My earlier proposal would have them dealing with vacations anyway, and this could likely lessen the regulatory burden of the Master Use Permitting process. Obviously I could regret this suggestion once I get to SMC 23.76. Maybe it’s not as complicated as it reads.
But if we are going to accommodate more growth in our city we are likely going to have to have an increase in short subdivisions, especially if we want housing types that are between mixed use with retail, housing, and commercial. In some areas that are currently designated single family, it might make sense to subdivide a lot of lots into smaller ones. If we want to legalize neighborhood density, we ought to make that process a lot easier, faster, and cheaper limiting the process to surveying, mapping, and due diligence rather than public process.
I might be completely wrong about all this. But that’s what the comments section is for. Let me know.
Photo: from presentation by the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild.