Update on backyard / side yard homes

[guest post from the folks at One Home Per Lot]

In the most recent recommendations from the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), something called the 100 Percent Rule has been proposed. This would allow developers to buy an existing house, split the lot into two lots and build a new house in the back or side yard if the new lot created is at least 100 percent as large as the other lots on the block.

On the surface, this sounds fair and equitable. But if you dig a little deeper into the idea, the ugliness starts to show.

10 reasons why the 100 Percent Rule is bad for neighborhoods:

  1. This will create hundreds if not thousands of new, undersized backyard / side yard lots. The goal behind the emergency moratorium, the city council hearings, the DPD recommendations, the neighborhood protests, the public debates, the lawsuits, the media coverage and the lobbying has been to close — or at least tighten — the existing loopholes that are allowing a handful of developers to wedge new homes into backyards and side yards. We had been making progress, but now the 100 Percent Rule opens up a whole new avenue for the developers.
  2. The 100 Percent Rule makes it much easier for developers to find undersized lots that can be developed. Currently, they have to hire researchers to dig through historic plat maps. Under the 100 Percent Rule, they’ll be able to simply drive through neighborhoods (your neighborhood) looking for odd-sized lots.

 

  1. While the new lot created by the 100 Percent Rule may be the same average size as the other lots on that block, the new house built on the new lot will most certainly be way out of proportion. Under the recommendations, developers will be able to build houses on these lots that are 27 feet tall (three stories).
  2. The neighborhoods that will suffer the most are the dense, formerly working-class neighborhoods with small, cottage-style homes (Montlake, Ballard, Wallingford, Green Lake, Queen Anne, Fremont, etc.). Those are the neighborhoods with the screwy old lot-boundaries and the most odd-sized undersized lots. Those are the neighborhoods that will be targeted by developers wanting to use the 100 Percent Rule. Those are the neighborhoods that will look the worst when dozens of 27-foot-tall skinny houses start sprouting up among their modest one-story cottages. Those are the neighborhoods that developers are now secretly surveying in anticipation.
  3. All the tricks that backyard / side yard developers were using to exploit small-lot regulations before the emergency moratorium was imposed will be brought into play again once the emergency moratorium is lifted and the 100 Percent Rule goes into effect. To think that they’ll now start playing by the rules with these new small lots is nothing but naive.
  4. Under the 100 Percent Rule, there is still no requirement that the city or the developer notify the surrounding neighbors when a lot is going to be split and a new house wedged into the back or side yard. The neighbors will have no advance warning, no right to provide input and no ability to lodge a complaint. This lack of notice will also prevent most neighbors from being able to file a LUPA lawsuit against the project within the required 21-day window.
  5. Most homeowners will continue living under the impression that the minimum lot size for their neighborhood is 5,000 square feet — which means this will become another arcane building code exception used by only a handful of savvy developers (not homeowners). The average homeowner will — like now — wind up selling their home to these developers at well below market value, because they didn’t realize that their lot could be split. Very few homeowners will go to the trouble of surveying their block and crunching the required calculations.
  6. Once one lot on the block is split, that could very well prevent any other lots on the block from being split. (Because the rule is based on a calculation of the average lot sizes on the block, the first lot to be split will reduce the overall average.) That’s going to lead to ugly land-grabs (“I got mine, to hell with you”).
  7. The developers have been trying to get the city to pass something called the 80 Percent Rule for almost a decade with no luck. The 100 Percent Rule is simply a watered down version. This is a huge win for them. If they can just continue to keep a low profile through the public hearings in November, they’ll come out of all this with hundreds if not thousands of new, undersized lots they can begin developing right away.
  8. This sets the stage for the future implementation of the 80 Rule. Once developers use up all the undersized lots created by the 100 Percent Rule, it will be easy to lobby the city to amend the 100 Percent Rule (you can imagine the rhetoric: “the 80 Percent Rule is simply an extension of all the great things we’ve been doing under the 100 Percent Rule”).

Does the 100 Percent Rule sound like an idea you’d like to see squashed before it gains momentum? Then let the Department of Planning and Development know. They’ll be accepting your comments on their recommendations until October 16. Send them to:

  • Andy McKim: Andy.McKim@seattle.gov
  • and copy city councilman Richard Conlin at: richard.conlin@seattle.gov

See past truth-telling emails

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