Reader Comment: Big Houses, Little Lots, and the Spirit of the Code

I was alerted to a late breaking comment on my posts about “big houses, little lots.” The commenter takes issue with my views, even though his view prevailed with a 9-0 emergency vote by the Seattle City Council to close the so called “loophole” in our code that allowed the construction of some larger single-family homes on smaller lots in single -family neighborhoods. I figured I’d fully respond above the comments. Here’s the comment:

Just stumbled upon your site. In all your posts, you haven’t discussed the issue in a way that makes me believe you understand the issue as it exists. What is occuring that concerns One Home Per Lot (which I am participating in from the outskirts) is that the spirit of the zoning rules are not being followed. I purchased my house knowing the zoning on my block (SF5000). I understood the 75/80 rule that essentially allowed houses to be built on 3750sqft sized lots. I didn’t anticipate a house being built on a lot down the block that is effectively less than 60% of that lot size. What has happened, which caught Conlin’s attention, is there is a pattern here of a subset of developers who are finding the properties that fit the exceptions that allow houses to be built outside the generalized rules, and putting houses in a density greater to the intended zoning.
Simply, if I spent the time and effort to buy a house in a SF5000 block, I expect that zoning to be followed. If I didn’t care, I would have bought the house I liked in the multi-family zoned neighborhood instead.
These houses are popping up in frustration to people with these reasonable expectations.

Jason suggests that big houses on little lots violate the “spirit” of the zoning code. The problem with this spiritual take the land use code is that whether we like it or not, land use regulation is not based on our emotional reactions to its consequences. That was my problem with the “emergency” action by Council; lots of us think the spirit of the code, the Comprehensive Plan, and good planning and land use get violated all the time. I’d argue that the Council’s action violated the spirit of innovation and creativity that we should be hoping to inspire so we can more efficiently and sustainable use one of our scarce resources, land in the city of Seattle.

Spirit of the Code: Grow or die

The fact is that the houses were legal, just as it is legal for neighbors opposed to a project to make an effort to use the environmental protection process that’s part of the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) to grind down projects that are truly sustainable and good projects simply because they are afraid of change. To me, that use of SEPA is a violation of the spirit of that law, which was intended to prevent environmental degradation, not halt development because it blocks someone’s view of the sky.

And as for expectations, the same thing can be said. My expectation of living in Seattle is that we will welcome growth and innovative approaches to welcome more people to our city. That expectation hasn’t been met lately, especially when the Council responds rapidly to stop exactly the thing that we should be rewarding, the creative and profitable development of land in single-family neighborhoods to accommodate more people. It isn’t that those of us who supported big houses on little lots didn’t understand Jason’s point of view, but that we understood it all to well; his view is that the spirit of the code is about preserving the expectations of people already here, not those of people who want to live here in the future.

This is all a rehash of ground we’ve already covered, but the sad fact is that Jason’s view prevailed. The people wanting to change the rules of the game while the other side was winning prevailed. The lesson of big houses, little lots is that politics matters. We can engage all day long in technical reveries about the technical aspects of climate change, land use, and sustainable economics, but if those who want to keep things the same are better organized, we’ll continue to see sameness win out over change, demand for housing increase while supply lags, and land use policy that is made lot by lot, project by project rather than a forward looking code that aspires to greatness rather than coddling our fears.


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