Seattle's big home, small lot debate hits council chambers

SEATTLE -- City leaders are trying to rein in a recent construction trend that puts big, multi-story homes on undersized lots.

New rules are being drafted to prevent three-story homes from being squeezed onto small lots but still allow for new development in established neighborhoods. Staff with the Planning and Development Department post this explanation on the city's website:

"We determined that development approved under our current standards is sometimes out of character with surrounding conditions and inconsistent with the policy intent of allowing infill development on undersized lots."

Green Lake resident Kendra Bergstrom says homes have gone up around her Green Lake neighborhood that should never have been allowed.

"Places that used to have green space and natural light now have large, square buildings that take up the footprints," Bergstrom said. "That really impacts the character of our single family neighborhoods."

Peter Krause lives in the shadow of one such home.

"The height on this home behind me is 30 feet," Krause said. "The new regulations would bring the height down three feet. So that's a real slap in the face."

Krause thinks the draft proposals are headed in the right direction, but believes exceptions on height limits and other loopholes will allow crammed construction to continue.

For example, city planners are proposing a 22-foot height limit with 5 more feet for a pitched roof, after developers asked for more flexibility. Krause believes an 18-foot limit is appropriate so one home doesn't tower above the others.

"These homes rob the neighbors of privacy, they block views, they block sunlight, and they lower the surrounding property home values," he said.

"There are some examples I think are totally appropriate and others that are out of place," said Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien, who chairs the Planning, Land Use and Sustainability Committee.

O'brien is trying to strike a balance. He wants new construction to reflect the context of the existing neighborhood, but recognizes that some side lots and back yards - while undersized - should be open to develop.

"To me if it's average and that's what's on the block, I'm OK with someone building a house on that lot," he said.

Other groups have raised concerns that the current proposal could actually prevent some homeowners from making additions to their existing homes. They believe it could stymie a large number of remodeling projects.

A public hearing on the small lot development proposals will be held in city council chambers Friday, April 18, at 2 p.m.