Council shoots down plan to raze Mercer Island mansion

UPDATE: On Monday night, the Mercer Island City Council voted unanimously to reject a proposal to raze the mansion and replace it with 18 homes.

MERCER ISLAND, Wash. -- The indoor pool took five years to complete, with wood purchased in South Africa, processed in Europe, and then finished in California. The adjacent greenhouse holds tropical plants that grow everything from bougainvillea to Meyer lemons. The master bedroom features a handmade spiral staircase that took six months to finish, under a roof of solid copper.

If the Coval House sounds rare and exotic, that's because it is - but that may also have been its downfall.

"It's a very, very complicated home with incredible maintenance costs," said Dave Eck, who was involved in the design and woodworking of the house in the 1980s. "We weren't able to find a buyer who could keep the property intact."

The home, once owned by scientists Myer and Barbara Coval, went on the market in 2011 for more than $15 million dollars, according to real estate records. The extravagant touches were even the basis of an episode for an HGTV show called "Million Dollar Rooms."

A developer now plans to tear down the mansion and put 18 houses on the five-acre lot, if the project gets approval from the Mercer Island city council. The council will take up the issue Monday night.

"I was very upset," said Linda Chaves, one of the nearby residents who is opposing the project. "Some of the neighbors have said, 'We oughta just move and get out while we can sell our houses, because our property values are going to go down if we have tract housing behind us.'"

Chaves says her concerns include privacy, density, and environmental ones. Part of the plans call for a developer to level out the existing land. Chaves, who works for NOAA, fears the development could make the ground unstable and have long-term consequences for nearby Lake Washington.

"It's pretty clear that they definitely prefer to see something else with the property," said Wes Giesbrecht, the developer behind the project, who says he's been meeting with neighbors since April 2013 to address their concerns. "I don't think there's anything that we could potentially do that would mitigate their concerns 100 percent."

Giesbrecht says the land is currently zoned to hold up to 23 homes, and argues that the plans to put 18 homes on average 10,000 square foot lots don't make the project "high density."

"We're going above code. We're installing a rain garden to deal with some drainage issues. We're putting in extra parking," Giesbrecht said. "We're going above and beyond what code requires and it doesn't seem to have caused any less consternation on their part."

Both Giesbrecht and Chaves, along with others, will have their chance to plead their case before the city council Monday night. A vote on the project is scheduled to take place at an 8 pm meeting.

"I think we've always known that somebody would want to subdivide it to some extent," Chaves added, "but we're really concerned that we're looking at something that's going to look like tract housing."