Mercer Island will consider a six-month moratorium on some new residential construction because of concerns about big new houses considered out of scale and character with existing neighborhoods.
Within a block of Carolyn Boatsman’s 1955 three-bedroom rambler, several big new houses have been built in a style she calls “wall of tall”— two stories, close to the street and nearly covering their lots from side to side.
Three other ramblers on her Mercer Island block have been snatched up by developers who plan to subdivide the large, tree-lined lots and replace one house with two, and two houses with three. New houses in the First Hill neighborhood on west Mercer Island have sold for $2 million and up.
“It’s the in-your-face type of development rather than the nestled-in-the-trees, which the neighborhood used to be,” said Boatsman.
Alarmed at the pace of redevelopment and that new construction is out of scale and character with existing neighborhoods, the Mercer Island City Council on Monday will consider a six-month moratorium on residential construction that divides existing properties into smaller lots.
Most Read Local Stories
- Biden to give away 400 million N95 masks starting next week
- Several families still unable to return to Bellevue street where hill gave way, house slid
- Driver arrested after video shows Jeep plowing into Seattle snowball fight, police say
- When the Seattle area's stretch of dry, mild weather could end
- Washingtonians will soon be able to order free rapid COVID tests through new state website
The council also will decide whether to restrict the currently routine practice of granting developers 5 percent more lot coverage than the 40 percent maximum specified in the city code, a practice that neighbors say has created larger houses and threatened more of the island’s midcentury landscaping and trees.
Neighbors want the city to pause long enough to re-examine its rules about how big a house can be built on what size lot, and whether new homes should be set back farther from the street.
Developers are equally alarmed at a moratorium’s potential impact on their livelihoods, and they question the speed with which the ordinance was introduced. The proposal was first considered after midnight at the Nov. 16 council meeting. It hadn’t been on the agenda, but was added at the start of that night’s meeting.
What’s more, three new members were elected to the seven-person City Council in November, but they won’t take office until January.
“There has been no public process or dialogue with Realtors, builders or homeowners. The transparency on this issue is 100 percent lacking,” said Marc Rousso, a co-owner of JayMarc Homes, which builds luxury houses on the Eastside, including about 40 on Mercer Island in the past four years.
Rousso met with about 25 First Hill residents last month and heard their concerns about losses of trees and the character and scale of his new homes. He argues that having builders voluntarily work with neighbors is a better approach than a blanket moratorium.
Growth concerns not new
Angst about growth in this suburb of about 23,000 has dominated city business and politics for the past year. The council in February approved a development moratorium in the Town Center commercial area that has since been extended to June 2016.
City Council races this fall featured candidates who wanted to downsize five-story building heights to two stories in the island’s downtown, and reverse commitments to build a bus transfer station for light rail, which is scheduled to reach the island in 2023. Just one of those candidates won election.
Town Center’s zoning hasn’t been updated since the 1990s. The commercial district is now slated to accommodate about 62 percent of the island’s anticipated growth, leaving the residential neighborhoods to absorb 31 percent, with the remaining 7 percent directed to new multifamily housing.
But residents have complained that the new buildings in Town Center created canyons that lack sunlight, open spaces and a pleasant pedestrian experience.
With Town Center development stalled by the moratorium, and questions about how to move forward dominating the city’s 2015 work plan, Council member Dan Grausz introduced the residential moratorium.
“We couldn’t continue to let the neighborhoods be ignored while we’re grappling with other issues,” he said. “My primary goal is to force this issue to the front of the city’s queue.”
Grausz also lives in the First Hill neighborhood. He said the area was one of the first to be developed in the 1950s and has experienced some of the most intensive redevelopment in recent years. In fact, the lot immediately north of his recently sold and its one house could be replaced with two.
He said he was “certainly aware” of the potential redevelopment next door, but that he proposed the moratorium because of the concerns of other islanders and not “to do something just to benefit myself.”
At issue is not Seattle-scale redevelopment. The minimum lot size in residential neighborhoods on Mercer Island is 8,400 square feet. When Seattle slapped a moratorium on small-lot development in 2012, it was over concern that three-story houses were being built in the back and side yards of existing homes on lots that in some cases were smaller than 2,400 square feet.
On Mercer Island, many lots in midcentury neighborhoods are even larger than the 8,400-square-foot minimum. But combining two large lots and building three new houses can mean bulldozing whole stands of trees and other vegetation that has grown up over the past 60 years.
Speaking up for trees
Residents who support the proposed moratorium are also calling on the city to strengthen protections for old trees.
“Part of the character of the Northwest are all the coniferous trees. To have three houses with no trees changes the whole look and feel of the neighborhood,” said Mike Hart, a resident of the First Hill area.
But another builder and longtime island resident, Randy Koehler, owner of RKK Construction, said a moratorium would hurt a lot of older residents who plan to use the proceeds from the sale of their homes to finance retirement.
“People who sell want top dollar. The property is worth more if they can sell one lot for two homes,” he said.
He also questioned how many subdivisions or lot-coverage exceptions are actually granted. According to figures from the city Development Services Department, 89 percent of new homes permitted in the past five years are either one new home replacing an existing one, or a new home being built on vacant land. And the total number of new homes being built is relatively small, about 40 per year since 2010.
Bigger homes are being built, Koehler said, because that’s what today’s buyers want.
“People aren’t looking for 2,000-square-foot ramblers. The houses I’ve torn down aren’t habitable. They’re not remodel-able. They’re often the neighborhood eyesores,” he said.
Jill Moodie’s family could be impacted by a moratorium. She’s executor of her father-in-law’s estate, which includes a neglected midcentury home on almost a full acre. She won’t benefit from any proceeds, but her son and brother-in-law could.
She negotiated a contract with a developer who wants to tear down the old house and build three new ones. If a moratorium is adopted, the developer won’t be able to build and the deal won’t go through.
“A lot of these houses are held by older people. They haven’t been maintained. We’re probably the rule, not the exception,” she said. “If the city adopts a moratorium, they’re going to diminish the value of our land.”