Chapter 23.44 Residential, Single-Family: Subchapter III Accessory Uses

Over on my Facebook page this little oddity pictured created quite a stir. Some people, like myself, think this is a harmless but perhaps over-exuberant example of a Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit or DADU.

Others thought that not only was this “fugly,” but wondered where the old woman and her children might be hiding. A couple people were convinced that this DADU is not even legal and somehow slipped through the cracks–an indictment of the Department of Planning and Development. A couple thought perhaps it had gotten permitted–an indictment of the Department of Planning and Development.

Sadly I am not going to be able to answer the question here. Whether this particular building is legal or not, I’m just glad that it sparked a heated debate about something other than the tunnel and about land use. As it happens my reading has brought me to the section on Accessory Use, which encompasses Accessory Dwelling Units of both the attached and detached variety. Before I give my opinions let’s look at what Subchapter III says.

As I wrote earlier, accessory uses are those that are “incidental to principal uses permitted outright.” Let’s start with the easy stuff first:

I say easy because these uses are either somewhat non-controversial (who doesn’t want your neighbor to put in a swimming pool–even if you hate him you can laugh because the weather here sucks so bad) or very rare or peculiar like columbaria (the code goofs up the Latin) or bed and breakfasts. Certainly a new bed and breakfast might cause a hullabaloo but there is parking required. Most of these accessory uses almost fall into the code enforcement category.

Then there are the things that sound scary:

Who wants an incinerator next door, even though it might be energy efficient. I remember when Beacon Hill neighbors battled successfully against the Veterans Administration’s incinerator, although it may have been on its way out anyway. Recycling collection stations–or transfer stations–have become a cause celebre in environmental justice circles. And roomers and boarders sounds either too much like something from Of Mice and Men or halfway houses full of sex offenders. These happen, are often even necessary, and do impact livability.

However, these accessory uses are the kinds of uses that I can see single family or any neighborhood being very concerned about, with the exception of roomers, borders, and lodgers. And they don’t increase density or facilitate walkability. These truly have impacts that potentially have no upsides for a neighborhood.

That leaves us with urban farms (23.44.042) which I think we need more than we need open space or parks. I have written about some great ideas that have been kicking around for vacant urban spaces. There are smaller spaces that fit the 4,000 square foot limit, in places like Capitol Hill , that would make great urban, collective farms. And I’m not talking about a couple of tomato plants either, but perhaps even a farm with animals. Laurelhurst has some great grazing pastures too!

Finally, back to the shoe on Beacon Hill, accessory dwelling units. Of all the things in this Subchapter I don’t think any can sustain as much controversy as well as accessory dwelling units. A reading of the requirements is testament to the fact the code is written to prevent the kind of thing I took a picture of (you can see all the requirements for a DADU here in a Client Assistance Memo from DPD). Here’s what the ideal DADU would look like based on DPD’s guide online:

Nice. A far cry from the vinyl sided shoe on Beacon Hill.

Here are my thoughts on DADU and single family.

  • We need more of them–If we are going to achieve some density in single family it makes sense to make these easier to do;
  • Doing them well matters–all it takes is one bad example to get people up in arms about the coming deluge of poorly designed DADUs;
  • We need better incentives–how about some kind of tax credit for homeowners who undertake the expense of building one of these. It seems to me that doing this would provoke more interest and give the City a lot more say on the projects;
  • Not every DADU is going to be perfect–some crappy DADUs will get built, but we can’t let that be the rallying point for the discussion; and
  • Not every DADU will be bad–but we also need to remember that most won’t be high concept, super green, showpieces. Often they will be simple conversions of an existing garage.

Mostly we need to get used to change and encourage more experimentation. The 800 square foot limit is too small. Why have a limit. And the lot line requirement is too constraining:

A detached accessory dwelling unit may be located within a required rear yard if it is not within 5 feet of any lot line, unless the lot line is adjacent to an alley, in which case a detached accessory dwelling unit may be located at that lot line.

Why shy away from the lot line? What magic occurs in that 5 foot space? Are we worried about the Leprechauns? Smurfs? Build that thing right to the lot line if it makes sense. And there are similar provisions about entrances and parking, all of which are based on anxieties rather than hopes and dreams.

Instead of this:

E. Reporting. DPD shall report annually to the Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee or its successor committee on city-wide accessory dwelling unit permit activity. This annual report shall encompass all attached and detached accessory dwelling unit permits issued and all permits finaled since the previous annual report and shall include the number of permits issued and the number of permits finaled, a map that shows the location and dispersion of both types of accessory dwelling units, and the number of parking waivers granted. For each detached accessory dwelling unit permit issued, the report shall state the height, gross floor area, total square footage of the lot where the detached accessory dwelling unit is located, and total lot coverage of all structures on the lot, and whether any garage space is incorporated into the detached accessory dwelling unit. For each permit finaled, the report shall include a photograph of the detached accessory dwelling unit. The report shall be delivered to the Council by no later than January 31 of the following calendar year.

How about this:

E. Reporting. DPD shall report annually to the Planning, Land Use and Neighborhoods Committee or its successor committee on city-wide accessory dwelling unit permit activity. This annual report shall encompass all attached and detached accessory dwelling unit permits issued and all permits finaled since the previous annual report and shall include the number of permits issued and the number of permits finaled, a map that shows the location and dispersion of both types of accessory dwelling units, and the number of parking waivers granted. For each detached accessory dwelling unit permit issued, the report shall state the height, gross floor area, total square footage of the lot where the detached accessory dwelling unit is located, and total lot coverage of all structures on the lot, and whether any garage space is incorporated into the detached accessory dwelling unit. include an update on meeting goals for increasing the number and quality of Detached Accessory Dwelling Units in the city. The report will include a progress report on

  • increases in density of single family neighborhoods related to permits given;
  • number and amount of incentives given to property owners building DADU;
  • number and description of projects improved from design guidance from the City;
  • improved energy efficiency of existing structures because of conversion to DADU use; and
  • an analysis of the affordability for property owners and residents of DADUs.

For each permit finaled, the report shall include a photograph of the detached accessory dwelling unit. The report shall be delivered to the Council by no later than January 31 of the following calendar year.

Okay, maybe those aren’t the best measures. But are we trying to minimize impacts on what and who is already there or are we trying to make things better? Focusing on parking, and the size of these buildings isn’t the right thing to be measuring. The code ought to be aspiring to more than that.

Lastly, this is about how people use their own property. The pitch should not be about how these might damage my property value when a neighbor does one, but how it will boost my income (and potentially help a family member) if I build one myself. We kind of need to get over ourselves and start doing what’s need to make these happen, learn from mistakes, and make them better.

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4 Responses to Chapter 23.44 Residential, Single-Family: Subchapter III Accessory Uses

  1. A couple quick things:

    • The pictured building is NOT a backyard cottage (DADU). Calling it one obfuscates the issue you’re trying to address. It’s like putting up a picture of a gas station and calling it multi-family, and then starting a discussion on the merits of multifamily in single-family zones.

    • This building is either a house on its own lot, and therefore not subject to the constraints of the backyard cottage ordinance (with respect to height for example) OR if it sits on the same lot as the Craftsman house in the picture, it is an illegal structure built without a permit.

    • The land use code (perhaps unfortunately) does not provide a prescriptive path to good design. The option for mediocrity remains universally available! This eccentric building had some great possibilities, but the detailing falls short.

    • Setbacks will become major issues as we explore how to deep energy retrofit existing housing (which will often/usually require adding insulation on the exterior), but right now the primary purpose of setbacks is to maintain fire separation.

  2. . says:

    Thanks for your comment Rob. I am happy to have you comment on this effort. It makes my day.

    I take your point that this may not be, technically, a DADU as described in the code. But I’ve use it to be provocative and it seems to have worked. My point is that while we might have the capacity and desire to understand that, opponents and councilmembers won’t. That’s politics. We’ll trot out the coolest of the cool DADU and they’ll use this as an example.

    We’re only as good as out weakest link.

    But I embrace this thing for that very reason. What are we afraid of? Let’s talk about it. If it’s bad design, lack of density, lack of privacy, or whatever let’s have at it. What do we want? Good design, more density, more privacy, or whatever.

    Then let’s make the code address those outcomes. Right now the code builds a box with words and numbers and tells homeowners (or developers in other designations) if you can build it in that box, then its fine with us.

    And as you point out bad design can fit in that box. So can things that aren’t sustainable or adequately dense.

    Our code should focus on outcomes. If we want sustainable, well designed back yard cottages that are affordable then the code should try to make that happen. Sometimes all those things can fit in the box.

  3. Pingback: DADU, DA Done: Seattle’s cottage experiment a success | Seattle's Land Use Code

  4. Pingback: 23.91 Citation– Hearings– Penalties: Clean up your act! | Seattle's Land Use Code

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