Chapter 23.44 Residential, Single-Family: Subchapter 1

If you thought that I was going to dispense with summarizing and reviewing the code in favor of oblique essays on the American West, think again. I am now back to the rather daunting task of trying to put together something useful about how the single family designation works and what might work better.

The sacrosanct single family designation (which composes 60 percent of Seattle’s developable land) comes in three lot sizes:

Single Family (SF) 9,600 square feet (9600)

SF 9600 East Pine

Single Family (SF) 7,200 square feet (7200)

SF 7200 East Olive

Single Family (SF) 5,000 square feet (5000)

SF 5000 Columbia and East 20th

Subchapter 1 of the chapter is shorter of the three subchapters. It sets the baseline for the designation:

The following principal uses are permitted outright in single-family zones:

A. Single-family Dwelling Unit. One single-family dwelling unit per lot, except that an accessory dwelling unit may also be approved.

This is the first time I noticed the phrase “permitted outright” while reading the code. It’s a good phrase. It means, basically, “here’s what’s allowed here just by virtue of the designation.” The writers of the code subsequently add lots of conditions, exceptions, proscriptions, and other layers. But at its heart, the SF series is a lot with a house on it.

The code begins its elaboration by cutting openings for things like schools, some institutional uses (nursing homes, for example), and, strangely, “commercially operating horse farms in existence before July 1, 2000 on lots greater than 10 acres.” Where, I wonder, is that horse farm?

Then come the development standards for single family lots. One thing that is striking is the length of the section on trees, including an extended set of mandates on the measurements of trees. Before you jump to the conclusion that these requirements are all about how much Seattle loves its trees, I’d invite you to consider something else.

Trees are an enormous headache. They block views, tear up pipes, drop leaves and sap, and block sunlight and driveways. I suspect that the level of concern about trees in this section has more to do with the management of these issues than it does the City’s desire to promote trees. Oddly, the City Council has decided that new development should be where our tree cover should come from. I’d take most of those requirements and put them into the single family section. If we want more trees that’s where to put them.

Lots, of course, don’t always come shaped exactly the same size or with clean boundaries or histories. As I described in my post on plats and subdivisions there is lots of language to manage what amounts to a surveying exercise, keeping an eye on property lines, ownership patterns, and adjacencies like streams or creeks. What is built on the lot matters, too.

Lot Size Maximum                                    Lot Coverage
Less than 5,000 square feet                         1,000 square feet + 15 percent of lot area
5,000 sq. ft. or more                                      35 percent of lot area

I am skeptical of these requirements. Why limit lot coverage in single family? My sense is that it’s mostly about what we’re afraid of (gigantic houses for example) and not much else. There could be some technical or practical limits to the size of a house but other than that why put limits. I’d get rid of these.

But here’s the problem with that. Subchapter 1 goes on to define in extreme detail what can and can’t be built on the single family lot. It even requires that there be yards (“Yards are required for every lot in a single-family residential zone. A yard
that is larger than the minimum size may be provided.”) So it isn’t just about lot coverage of a house but all the other things that are required.

Along with yards, I’m going to point out a couple candidates for elimination and probably part of a rethinking all residential zoning in the city. Let’s look at parking and what family means.

Including mandates about decks and other structures, the code requires one parking spot per residential dwelling (see 23.54.015 where parking requirements are set). That means a lot of rules and requirements about garages, access for parking, and car storage. I think that we ought to eliminate all parking minimums for all uses citywide. I recognize this is a separate post, but let’s just repeal 23.54.015 and let the market it sort it out. That way we won’t need to describe and outline where people put their cars. More later.

Think of what we could do with all those abandoned garages, especially if we prohibit car storage on any residential lot with a single dwelling unit (I said get rid of requirements to have parking, not restrictions on car storage). And that brings up my thought about the “family” part of the “single family” designation. The code says this:

SMC 23.44.015 Allowance for larger households.

The Director may allow larger numbers of unrelated persons to live together in a household than would otherwise be permitted in two situations: (1) through a grant of special accommodation, available only to domestic violence shelters as defined in Chapter 23.84A, and (2) through a grant of reasonable accommodation, available only to persons with handicaps as defined by federal law.

There is an interesting court case called Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas which, I think, sets out the gold standard on zoning and “families.” I agree with the 8 Justices who concurred that the the Village of Belle Terre was well within their government powers to define family and set limits to who can live where based on that definition. The case is important because it affirms local power to zone and to decide what happens where and why.

And while I am not in total agreement with the one dissent in the case from Justice Thurgood Marshall, I like this:

This ordinance, however, limits the density of occupancy of only those homes occupied by unrelated persons. It thus reaches beyond control of the use of land or the density of population and undertakes to regulate the way people choose to associate with each other within the privacy of their own homes.

I think the privacy arguments are a slippery slope the wrong way when it comes to land use. I wouldn’t agree with anything that would give aid and comfort to people who would make the Jeffersonian argument that government “doesn’t belong in our homes.” Marshall was very sensitive to red lining, discrimination against multi-racial couples, and he was prescient about same sex marriage, sensing that government can get “family” wrong.

But, the privacy argument aside, I think that the idea that people should be allowed arrangements that are more expansive than “single family” is an important idea and one that ought to be explored.

It’s true that we already allow various accessory dwelling units, boarding houses, and other living arrangements for shelters. Why not consider not just loosening this provision, but encouraging more shared housing arrangements in the single family zone? I’m not talking about compounds of polygamous extremists, but allowing more co-housing options with existing structures like garages. These arrangements already exist as an ad hoc way of creating more affordable housing options in the city. Why not just make them legal.

So my recommendation on Subchapter 1 is to get rid of the parking minimum in single family, all the other requirements on lot coverage and subdivisions (see that other post), and open up and encourage the idea of shared housing as permitted outright.

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