A King County Superior Court judge has rejected a Seattle developer’s efforts to divide a big lot in the West Seattle Benchview neighborhood into three smaller lots where builders planned to surround an existing 1950s rambler with two three-story homes.
Although the court’s ruling was a narrow one, it affirmed the concerns of residents in several other neighborhoods that the city over the past few years has repeatedly granted permits for houses out of scale and character with the surrounding homes.
“We’re thrilled. We’re going to end up with two houses, instead of three shoehorned into a corner lot. It’s what should have happened all along,” said David Allen, a neighbor of the planned development near Schmitz Park.
The city hasn’t decided whether to appeal the July 25 ruling, said Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.
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In addition to the city, the Benchview neighbors also sued Blueprint Services, a construction lending company co-founded by Seattle builder Dan Duffus, who has specialized in small-lot development. The lawsuit also named two Seattle contractors who planned to build the new houses and remodel the old.
The city argued in its legal briefs that it was redrawing the West Seattle lots in a manner consistent with its historical practices and its interpretations of city land-use regulations.
The Benchview project was one of several across the city in which large new houses were built or proposed for the side yards or backyards of existing homes without any notice to surrounding residents.
In its legal brief, the attorney for the West Seattle neighborhood called the redrawn lot lines “starkly out of character with the existing pattern of development” and said the city could only approve them by using “gerrymandered lot lines and bootstrapped exceptions” to the land-use codes.
The growing outcry over large, modern homes crammed into older, established neighborhoods prompted the City Council in September 2012 to slap a moratorium on small-lot development. The Benchview parcels just exceeded the minimum lot size addressed by the moratorium, so they didn’t fall under the restrictions.
The moratorium is set to expire in September. Councilmember Richard Conlin, chair of the land-use committee, said it will likely be extended to give the council time to finalize new rules to guide the development of undersized lots.
Conlin said the city supports infill development — adding new homes to residential neighborhoods to increase the available housing stock. But he added that new development should be predictable and in scale with surrounding homes and lot sizes.
The Department of Planning and Development has proposed new regulations that would set a minimum lot size of 2,500 square feet and limit the height of new buildings on lots less than 3,200 square feet to 18 feet plus a 5-foot pitched roof. Developers could request additional height, but only by providing notice to the neighbors and an opportunity for them to appeal the city’s decision to a hearing examiner.
Conlin said a public hearing on the proposed rules likely won’t be held before December.
In the West Seattle case, the developer sought to divide an 11,500-square-foot corner lot into three parcels, although the underlying zoning was 5,000 square feet per lot. To make one of the new lots qualify, the developer made an L-shape by combining the land beneath an existing detached garage and the front yard of the rambler.
In issuing her ruling, Judge Mariane Spearman didn’t address the lack of notice to neighbors or the lot that appropriated the rambler’s front yard. But she did find that by changing the orientation of the rambler from the front to a side street, the city used the wrong block face to calculate average lot size, making the L-shaped lot too small.
Peter Krause, a member of the One Home Per Lot group that has been fighting small-lot development, said the city’s lack of notice to neighbors assumes the planning department doesn’t make mistakes.
“In this case, the judge is saying it does,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes