Seattle City Council: Crowded Houses Are an Emergency

The building-code loophole used by Dan Duffus and others is on its way to being cinched shut by the city.

City Council member Richard Conlin has a message for neighbors who are furious with developers building big houses on tiny backyard lots. "The heat is on," he wrote to Tangletown resident Peter Krause in an e-mail last week.

In fact, Conlin has officially anointed the big house/tiny lot phenomenon (see our cover story, "Not in Your Backyard," July 25) an emergency. He introduced emergency legislation that he says will address neighbors' concerns until a permanent fix can be worked out. On Monday, in a unanimous vote, the council approved the measure.

As our story explained, some builders—many of them financed by prolific developer Dan Duffus—are using a loophole in the zoning code that allows them to erect houses on lots that fail to meet minimum-size regulations. Most of these "lots" were not considered lots at all for decades, but were part and parcel of somebody's back or side yard. But in some historical document—a tax record, perhaps—they are recorded as separate, small lots. If developers can find the records, the city usually will grant them a building permit.

Krause and residents of other neighborhoods affected by Duffus' projects have been complaining to Conlin and other city officials for months. To neighbors, the projects are sunlight-blocking, privacy-invading monstrosities that ruin their bucolic backyard experience. To top it off, they are offended by the modern style of many of these new houses, which in their view don't fit in with the historic character of their neighborhoods. By Monday morning, Conlin says, the roughly 160 e-mails and phone calls he had received were running seven to one in favor of his bill.

Conlin's proposed ordinance would require lots, historic or not, to be at least half as big as required by the minimum-size regulation (5,000 square feet in single-family neighborhoods). And even some of those lots, if they fell below 3,750 square feet, would have a new height restriction.

Duffus did not return a phone call last week seeking comment. But an e-mail he sent around the real-estate community expressed outrage: "This is the largest taking by City Council since the 1988 Small Lot Ordinance. . . . Who this will affect? Consumers who buy these homes. Builders who build these homes and most importantly, the Senior Citizens who currently own a majority of the current legal lots in the City of Seattle."

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