<p><span>This &ldquo;haute modern&rdquo; structure replaced the &ldquo;Rainbow Cottage,&rdquo; torn down earlier this year. The house was built on a standard-sized lot.&nbsp;</span>photo/Bryan Tagas</p>
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This “haute modern” structure replaced the “Rainbow Cottage,” torn down earlier this year. The house was built on a standard-sized lot. photo/Bryan Tagas

 

Acting in response to citizen complaints about outsized houses being built on tiny residential lots, the Seattle City Council recently passed “emergency” legislation that puts a moratorium on certain kinds of property development until the council studies the problem and comes up with a new set of permanent regulations. 

It doesn’t appear, however, that the temporary rules now in place for small lots or the new ordinance (when it’s eventually passed) will have much, if any, impact on the course of residential development here in Madison Park.

What the council’s action does is establish a short-term height limit of 22 feet for single-family residences newly built on small residential lots. To qualify to construct a house of this height (equating to two stories), the lot must contain at least 2,500 square feet — that’s about half the lot size of most residential properties in Madison Park. 

Lots that are smaller than 2,500 square feet will not qualify for construction of a multi-story residence at this time — with one huge exception. If there’s already a house on the property, the owner may renovate or add space to the property or even build a second dwelling unit (a “backyard cottage”) on it, as long as other code requirements (such as setback, height-restriction and lot coverage rules) are met. 

The height restriction in Madison Park is generally 30 feet (three stories).

It doesn’t appear that Madison Park has any tiny un-built-on properties that fit into the grandfathered “legal nonconforming lot” category that the City Council is now trying to better control. It’s difficult to identify such properties, since they are primarily lots that are not platted or specifically designated in property records, even though they exist as separate tax parcels on the city’s rolls. 

Certain developers have been scouring public records to identify, buy and develop these “off-the-grid” properties in a way that “creates housing that is not compatible with neighboring single-family houses,” in the words of City Councilmember Richard Conlin, a Madrona resident. 

 

‘Zoning loopholes’

Other Seattle neighborhoods — including Queen Anne, Greenwood, Wallingford and even Laurelhurst — have been seeing this kind of development over the last few years, and it has provoked outrage by many surrounding property owners who suddenly discover that what had always been a neighbor’s side yard or backyard is now the construction site of a new three-story house. 

Conlin cites an example of such a house being built on a lot of only 1,050 square feet. A website, www.onehomeperlot.com, initiated earlier this year to chronicle this kind of development, shows 61 examples of houses supposedly built on legal nonconforming lots. The list is entitled “Homes that are Driving Seattle Neighborhoods Nuts.”

The Seattle Weekly, which covered this topic in July, may have provided a catalyst for the City Council to take its action. Focusing principally on the efforts of Dan Duffus and his Soleil Development company, The Weekly came down squarely against the developer’s “rampant exploitation of an obscure zoning loophole.” 

Various neighbors of Duffus’ developments cried foul in the article, stating that the character of their neighborhoods was being changed by this unwelcome, nonconforming style of squeezed-in housing. 

Duffus, who claimed he was adding to the city’s housing stock by building energy-efficient houses on legal lots, was unapologetic for doing so. 

But the City Council officially took a dimmer view of his actions in September. A new ordinance dealing with these small lots will be researched, written and proposed to the council sometime next spring.

 

More the norm

Madison Park has a mix of residential zoning, including three kinds of low-rise, multi-family housing areas, along with both SF 5000 and SF 7200 residential development areas. These single-family designations mean that the standard lot size for these areas will be either 5,000 or 7,200 square feet, respectively. 

In fact, many, if not most, Madison Park lots are much smaller than zoning would now require. That’s because the neighborhood — like most in Seattle —was developed before the principal zoning laws came into effect in 1957. 

There are multiple tiny lots in the neighborhood, though it appears that all of these already have residential structures on them and would, therefore, not fall under the prohibitions of the new small-lot ordinance. 

But we can’t know for sure. Somewhere, a separate tax parcel may be hiding out there, just waiting for development.

As we have discussed in past columns, many Madison Parkers are upset with the kind of development that is taking place in the neighborhood. Large, boxy, modern structures are replacing quaint cottages, and in their opinion, the idealized “village” character of Madison Park is slowly being destroyed. 

But looking at most of the small-lot examples of houses that are supposedly driving other Seattle neighborhoods “nuts,” it seems that, for the most part, the construction elsewhere is not that different from much of the construction under way here. 

In Madison Park, it seems, “nonconforming” and “not compatible” are more the norm than the exception. New small-lot rules will certainly not change that reality.

 

BRYAN TAGAS writes the Madison Park blog (www.madisonparkblogger.com), from which this column was excerpted. To comment on this story, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.