Almost as if to prove my point, the Seattle City Council is considering an emergency proposal to prevent “a rush” by property owners to build cottages on small and odd lots in single family neighborhoods. Wallingford neighbors rallied and the Council listened. So next week the Council will try to squash any further effort to build more housing on “undersized lots.” The planners down at City Hall have determined and reported that
development approved under current standards is often out of character with surrounding conditions and inconsistent with the policy intent of allowing infill development on undersized lots. Interim measures are proposed in order to prevent a rush to obtain permits and develop properties in a manner that is not appropriate while this issue is being studied.
Yeah, right. Hold my coat while I call rush to call my architect. I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank if they somehow fail to pass this.
Once again Seattle engages in a long process (the original cottage discussion went on for years), passes legislation to allow more cottages, otherwise known as Detached Accessory Dwelling Units, in single family neighborhoods only to hit the panic button when a few angry neighbors don’t like what they see.*
Instead of highlighting these small lot cottages as really awesome feats of architecture, engineering, and free market capitalism the Council goes into emergency mode. Why? Because the benefits of developing this new housing is “accruing to developers who are familiar with arcane historic property and tax records.” Imagine that. Get knowledge of the code and tax records and use it to create housing and some extra cash (and some jobs) and that’s a bad thing. Shame on you for knowing arcane things! Only DPD and central staff should know arcane things. Didn’t you get the memo?!
Here’s the grab bag of other reasons why this is such a big emergency:
- Development is occurring on lots that are so small that they are out of scale with the surrounding development pattern, and neighbors never would have expected that they could be separately developed.
- In some cases it appears that a lot, although it was technically treated as separate in an historic record, most likely was never held with any intention that it might someday be separately developed.
- Houses being built on undersized lots are sometimes taller than surrounding homes, or otherwise present imposing façades or inelegant forms, likely due to the desire to maximize potential floor area subject to constraints such as yard requirements that limit the potential building footprint on a small lot.
- Because the development of a house on an undersized lot requires no discretionary review, it triggers no public notice. Neighbors often become aware that the lot is to be separately developed only when construction begins. No administrative appeal is available; the only recourse is to go to court under the Land Use Petition Act, and the opportunity to do that is subject to a very tight deadline.
The last one is truly farcical. Wait, let’s put our fingers on the scale in favor of NIMBYs, not the hard working, arcane-stuff-knowing people who managed to find a way to legally build more housing for fun and profit. And oh my God, Batman, this housing might be taller than the houses around it. Any central planner knows that something can’t be taller than the things around it!
The Seattle City Council can vote to make changes to allow more and different housing in single family neighborhoods, but then when someone actually figures out how to do it, make rules to stop it in its tracks because it’s too damn tall and the next door neighbor didn’t get a chance to veto it. Welcome to what I call the Seattle Problem, trying to make good things happen, but then making rules that makes those things harder to achieve.
The good news is that the Council needs a two thirds vote to do this. Please contact them and tell them to say “no!”
The chair of the committee is firstname.lastname@example.org
* Just to be clear, my point is not to suggest that the small-house-on-a-big-lot “emergency” was caused by Detatched Accessory Dwelling Unit (DADU) or cottage legislation passed a couple years ago. Instead, what I am pointing out is that the DADU legislation had the intent of creating more and different kinds of housing in single family neighborhoods. Shutting down the big houses on small lots is inconsistent with the principles those of us fought for during the stuggle to allow DADUs all over the city.