Hearing Examiner Halts Seattle’s ADU Ordinance

The hearing examiner sent Seattle’s planners back to the drawing board on its ADU environmental impact study.

The hearing examiner sent Seattle’s planners back to the drawing board on its ADU environmental impact study.

• Topics: Bellingham, Planning,

In a decision that may have an impact on the planned update of Bellingham’s accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinance in 2017, Sue Tanner, the hearing examiner in Seattle, remanded to the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) for further work their environmental impact Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) on the SEPA Environmental Checklist prepared for an update to Seattle’s ADU ordinance . Although the decision is not binding on Bellingham, aspects of the hearing examiner’s decision should have an indirect effect on the decision process on ADUs here.

As reported in the Seattle Times, “Seattle must halt a proposal to allow more and larger backyard cottages in order to conduct a more thorough review of potential environmental consequences, including the possibility that it could lead to gentrification.” Tanner’s decision states, ““The record demonstrates that the challenged DNS (determination of non-significance) was not based on information sufficient to evaluate the proposal’s impacts…” In fact, most of the questions in the SEPA checklist are answered “not applicable”. To think that the SEPA statement provides any useful information whatsoever in determining the long-term effects of the creation of ADUs in all of Seattle’s single family zoned areas is a risible notion.

As in Bellingham, certain ADUs are already allowed in the city of Seattle. The Seattle ordinance would greatly expand their use by allowing ADUs on smaller lots and even allow building of a cottage and an ADU on single lot, thus creating three dwelling units on a single family zoned property. The hearing examiner also found that the OPCD was not only the proponent but also the decision maker on the DNS, a clear conflict.

Not surprisingly, the same issues raised by Bellingham citizens during the Comprehensive Plan update this year were in play in the Seattle decision. These issues are the impact of parking, affordability, gentrification, public services/utilities, height/bulk/scale and lifetime effects. The examiner found that these aspects were not sufficiently studied.

Here, the city can expect a substantial push-back by citizens who, although generally supportive of carefully planned use of ADUs, suspect that Bellingham’s ADU ordinance update may be used to effectively eliminate single family zoning creating severe negative effects on the character of neighborhoods. The year 2017 may prove to be an interesting one for housing and land use decisions.

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About Dick Conoboy

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 26, 2008

Dick Conoboy is a recovering civilian federal worker and military officer who was offered and accepted an all-expense paid, one year trip to Vietnam in 1968. He is a former Army [...]

Comments by Readers

Geoff Middaugh

Dec 15, 2016

Excellent article, Dick, about the context of the resistance to unrestrained ADU’s in every nook and cranny of single family zones.   This was discussed yesterday on KUOW (NPR) in Seattle, and the arguement for unrestrained ADU’s is to argue the selfishness of single family zones who want to maintain their current situation.   This class divisivenss is what is used against an effective ADU ordinance in Bellingham.   We have to pay attention to this!     Where is the picture of the three story garage in your article?


Dick Conoboy

Dec 15, 2016

I plucked the photo off a blog in Seattle.  Not sure where exactly the ADU is located.  Here is a link to the blog.   The blog seems to be dormant since 2011. 

The developers and related building industries have now latched onto the vocabulary of the class/race divide and now couch their aims to build anything anywhere as “equity issues”.   This “newspeak” takes over the vocabulary of what used to be civil and human rights protests and contorts them with new meaning so that opponents of continuing ad infinitum density, growth, expansion, etc., become the bad guys. 


Dick Conoboy

Dec 16, 2016

Some follow on opinion on the HE decision on ADUs in Seattle…

Seattle Times editorial board

The Seattle Times

SEATTLE reached a turning point Tuesday when a hearing examiner excoriated City Hall’s plan to allow density to increase by as much as threefold in city neighborhoods.

For the first time in recent memory, the bluff was officially called on the city’s poor planning and misleading rhetoric as it enthusiastically boosts development.

Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner’s ruling suggests that residents were being bamboozled by the equivalent of post-factual, fake news.

Instead of creating more affordable housing as Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council proclaimed, the policy on backyard cottages would make housing less affordable.

The policy would create a bonanza for investors, increasing housing costs. It would also hurt poor and minority residents the policy was purported to help.

Officials presented the policy as a way to build innocuous backyard cottages and diversify neighborhoods. But experts cited in the ruling said it “would cause displacement of some populations within the city, particularly minority populations” in the south end.

Backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments are already allowed in Seattle with some restrictions, such as a requirement that owners live on the property.

Crucially, officials wanted to remove that residency requirement, and allow more and bigger rental units on single-family lots. The changes would allow most Seattle houses to be converted to investor-owned, multifamily rentals.

Doing so would “accelerate gentrification, driving up home values and reducing the number of entry-level single-family residences available to immigrant populations, thereby diminishing the City’s diversity,” according to expert testimony.

Murray and Councilman Mike O’Brien introduced the policy as an affordability strategy. But city planners disclosed during the hearing that the objective was really to spur construction and new units probably wouldn’t be in the “affordable” category.

This turning point is important to more than residents feeling steamrollered by City Hall.

The Puget Sound region has a vested interest in Seattle maintaining its livability, infrastructure and residential appeal. The city’s ability to grow and attract companies and employees is essential to the region’s economic success. Its single-family neighborhoods will provide a lasting advantage if they withstand the current surge of Amazon.com growth and land speculators.

In the past, Seattle has been a model of progressive, inclusive governance. Tuesday’s ruling suggests that’s changing.

The ruling said planners minimized policy impacts and gave short shrift to potential harm. Tanner called for a full, objective environmental review of its impacts.

The appeal was filed by the Queen Anne Community Council — one of the neighborhood advisory councils Murray dumped in July amid pushback on his growth proposals.

The appeal process provides valuable insight into the city’s political machine. It should embolden others to challenge extreme proposals and lead to renewed civic engagement.

City officials should be grateful for the chance to reconsider a divisive policy, especially since the hearing revealed that its outcomes are contrary to their stated values.

Housing advocates protesting that an environmental review hurts affordability and favors “not-in-my-backyard” homeowners should read the ruling.

Ignoring facts — the city shortchanged environmental concerns, housing costs will increase and the disadvantaged may suffer — puts such protesters in the same boat as those who refused to accept the FBI’s decision that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be prosecuted. Their “NIMBYism” chant is Seattle’s version of “Lock her up.”

As Seattle updates its growth policies it should pay heed to lessons from Tuesday’s ruling. One is that residents care deeply about the negative effects unbridled growth has on their city and they’re tired of being spun. Another is that Seattle’s tight housing market is not a simple supply-and-demand problem.

The supply of single-family land in Seattle is finite and diminishing. Demand for this precious resource is nearly infinite, and comes from people wanting homes and investors wanting profits.

Officials must weigh these competing demands and balance them with interests of existing residents whom they’re supposed to serve.

Tuesday’s ruling is a welcome opportunity to start fresh, with a more transparent and inclusive process. 

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Donna Gordon Blankinship, Brier Dudley, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).


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