Montlake residents declare war against tall, skinny homes

SEATTLE -- Some residents in Montlake have declared war on what they consider a dirty housing secret: Tall, skinny houses being built on tiny lots because they qualify for building exemptions.

A three-story modern box house is about to be built in what's been a backyard for the last 60 years in their neighborhood. Neighbors worry it will tower over them, clash with the neighborhood's character and nosedive property values.

"The (developer) comes in, he builds his house, makes his money and he leaves," said Montlake resident Robert Schuck.

Neighbors were curious when stakes went up on the lawn. After digging into city planning records, they discovered a tall house on a tiny lot was coming.

To their surprise -- especially the couple who live next door to the lot -- this kind of project has no public input or appeal process.

"With the three stories out there, people are gonna look right down into our area," said neighbor David Lamb who is with the Blaine Street Preservation Association.

The project began with developer Dan Duffus, who is actually connected to nearly 100 similar local developments. Duffus finds eligible lots -- most are backyards of existing houses. One we found under construction in Wallingford sits on a lot barely 1,000 square feet.

Neighbors here don't like it either. And back in Montlake, the Lamb family are so incensed, they may move.

"It's just that we've been here a long time and I feel I belong here," David Lamb said.

City zoning requires single family homes be built on 5,000-square foot lots, but a little known exception in the city regulations allows homes to be built on tiny lots, if the property was subdivided years ago under old tax records.

"Historical lot exceptions have existed in our code for over 50 years," said Brian Stevens with the Seattle Department of Planning and Development.

A cluster of neighborhood groups insist the code is antiquated and should be ditched, or at least include public input.

"There doesn't seem to be any government agency looking out for our interests," Mary Lamb said. "We lived here and paid taxes."

The city told me that's not unusual -- there's no public input on any single family unit, but Stevens says they have heard some grumblings from neighbors. "And maybe rightly so," he said.

But, in a different Seattle neighborhood, we found a very different attitude. Eric and Linda and their neighbors love their skinny two-story box house. They have the living space, and dream kitchen they've always wanted. They describe their home as green, modern, beautiful and responsible and they don't get all the fuss.

"I think it's really sad, I think it's a lot of misplaced energy," said Linda, who didn't want to give her last name. "I think there is a lot more pressing issues in Seattle to focus on than your neighbor's property."

Duffus declined to be interviewed, but in a statement said he's proud of his work, calls infill development, affordable and environmentally sustainable.

"You're gonna have to up the density, there is no way getting around it," Eric said.

The city agrees with Eric and Linda, but also thinks the Montlake neighbors raise good questions too.

"The mayor's office and City Council has actually asked us to review our historical lot exceptions to look and see if there are some undesired outcomes and whether the code should be changed," Stevens said.

Eric and Linda's neighbor, Scott White thinks the box house fits in with Seattle's eclectic and environmental side.

"It's all about infill in the city, we are running out of buildable lots," White said.

The problem is undeniable, it's the solution that's uncertain.

The planning department says its review will come by the end of the year. But, in an email, Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin told residents the council will vote Monday afternoon on emergency legislation to restrict the city's small lot exemption.