RERUNS: Blaine Street Preservation group finds citywide allies against backyard developer

Image: Montlaker

The feature article in the current issue of Seattle Weekly dives into the subdivision controversy that fired up Blaine residents earlier this year. In short, developer Dan Duffus makes his career out of spinning off backyard lots from single-family properties to build new “tall-and-skinny” houses — and residents all over the city are upset at the intrusion of “substandard” homes in single-family neighborhoods.

A few highlights from the Weekly article:

It did not help when neighbors found out that Duffus, along with an array of builders he works with, was taking advantage of a zoning loophole that allows building on certain undersized lots whose existence can only be discovered in historical documents. Nor were neighbors appeased by Duffus’ presentation of himself as a green developer creating something the city says it wants: urban density.

Meanwhile, a block of Montlake has incorporated itself into a nonprofit group—the Blaine Street Preservation Committee, complete with its own Facebook page—to fight a three-story house that is planned for a backyard there after the deck on the existing house was chopped off to make room for it. The group has barraged DPD with complaints, but has been told that the building permit was not subject to public notice or appeal.

While the article has no shortage of quotes from upset neighbors, it also goes on to frame the issue in debates about affordable housing, urban versus suburban development and single-family preservation.

From Queen Anne to Montlake, the same type of controversy was playing out, with neighbors beside themselves with rage. Their fury found the ear of City Council member Richard Conlin, who says he intends to do something about it—driving Duffus to lament that the city will be chasing away desperately needed housing in a growing city.

“We believe in infill,” [Duffus] says, calling it the “greenest kind of development there is. We’re not tearing down the forest in Issaquah.” …

He also says he’s not interested in making Seattle look like Bellevue, with sweeping suburban lawns. “We believe homes should not be on big lots,” he says. To illustrate why, he hops in his car and offers a tour of the neighborhood around Zoka. He stops first in front of a development he had nothing to do with: twin homes built on full-sized lots. Each sold for $1.3 million. That’s the thing about 5,000-square-foot lots, he says: They’re expensive.

And finally…

Similarly, Montlake’s Miller points out that her neighborhood is already dense. “We are not like Broadmoor,” she says. “We don’t have big yards and pools.” Indeed, her portrait of the neighborhood suggests that it fights suburban sprawl. Full of kids, Miller says Montlake offers a family-friendly feel “without being in suburbia or having McMansions.”

An update on the 1905 Blaine property — it is up for sale again as a flip with a new kitchen and new fence separating its old backyard new neighboring property. A big pile of debris on the Duffus site awaits construction of a new 3-story tall-and-skinny.

Read the Seattle Weekly feature here. A previous post on Montlaker about this issue is here. And for more single-family development reading pleasure, you can find Seattle DPD Director Diane Sugimura’s response letter explaining the Blaine decision, and why all of this is allowed by the building code, after the jump:

Originally published July 26, 2012

Dear Interested Neighbors:

We have received letters, phone calls, and emails from many of you expressing concern about the proposed development of a parcel adjacent to the house at 1905 East Blaine Street. I do understand your concerns regarding the small lot and the design of the proposed structure, which you feel is incompatible with the traditional design of houses in the neighborhood.

I will try to explain what determinations have been made at this point, and the code provisions that direct our authority. Please accept my apologies for not responding individually to each of you, but I believe a general letter addressing the numerous concerns raised, will be more informative.

The proposed development site is in an SF 5000 zone, where the minimum lot area requirement is generally 5000 square feet. The parcel where the new house is proposed has an area of approximately 2457 square feet. The adopted code includes a variety of lot size exceptions. We have determined that this particular lot qualifies for an exception in Section 23.44.010.B.1.d of the Land Use Code. This exception applies to lots that were separately recognized in the public records prior to 1957. Seattle’s Land Use and Zoning Codes have included lot area exceptions for historic lots ever since the 1950s, when minimum lot area standards were first codified.) In this case, there were multiple historic records, including records of conveyances, a mortgage and tax records, which treated the parcel in question as a separate lot. Although the parcel has been under common ownership with the house at 1905 East Blaine Street, the parcel was not used to meet required development standards for that house, (such as yard requirements), that were in effect in 1931 when the permit for that house was issued.

People have expressed concern about lack of notice to the neighbors. A number of projects reviewed by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) involve “discretionary” review, which includes required public notices and an opportunity for neighbors to comment, and the opportunity for DPD to impose conditions, (as appropriate), based on public concerns. However, most of the permits issued by this Department do not involve substantial exercise of discretion, and based on the adopted code, are not subject to public notice and comment requirements. In particular, a determination that a property qualifies for separate development under a lot area exception is based purely on whether specific standards in the code are met.

While public notice and comment period is not required for this type of project, as I have mentioned to several of you, we will, of course, carefully review comments received during our review process.

An application for a proposed house on the property is currently under review, which is also not a discretionary decision. The proposed development must be evaluated solely based on the development standards provided in the Land Use Code. Although we are conscious of the concerns some of you have raised about whether the house will fit in with the nearby older homes, we have no legal authority to condition or restrict the development on that basis, if the proposed structure meets the applicable development standards. However, copies of your letters have been forwarded to the planner who is performing the zoning review for that project, so that she will be aware of the concerns you have raised, as she reviews the project.

Although I know this may not be the answer you had hoped for, I hope that this letter helps to clarify our practices and the scope of our regulatory authority. Thank you very much.

Sincerely, Diane M. Sugimura, Director

4 thoughts on “RERUNS: Blaine Street Preservation group finds citywide allies against backyard developer

  1. Dan Duffus has moved into my neighborhood as well – Denny Blaine but actually right off Lake Washington Blvd and near Bush School. He bought a beautiful 1929 or 1930 Paul Thierry home that is on a corner lot. It had two tax parcels to it and he did the same thing mentioned in the Weekly article; short platted it and sold very very quickly to a contractor – the same contractor who is remodeling this Thierry home. Again, all this happened VERY Quickly and VERY Silently. As soon as we became aware of the situation, several neighbors met with this contractor to find out his intentions; it is to build a 3-story contemporary on a corner lot 10 feet next to the original Thierry house and right in the face of and against other neighborhood homes of a much smaller scale. He will be removing a lot of natural greenery. It’s also a lot, like those surrounding it that has a large underground water spring(s). We have no voice in this matter. The architectural drawings are done and construction is to commence as soon as the original home is remodeled. I wrote a letter to Dan Duffus about this current remodel to clearly state that what I was told by his contractor coincides with Duffus’ program. I am very interested in collaborating with other individuals or city groups in this matter and wished we could of added our voices to the Seattle Weekly’s article.

  2. Pingback: City land-use reforms encourage more backyard development | montlaker

  3. Please Attend an Emergency City Council Meeting on Monday, Oct 10th at 2:00 City Hall. Note Sign-in Starts at 1:30 – Recommend you be there earlier
    Below is a post from the Laurelhurst Blog for Background on the Legislation.

    There has been a positive development in the fight against Tall Skinny Houses like the one that is currently under construction at 4812 NE 40th Street, Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin is planning to introduce emergency legislation followed by a City Council vote on Monday at 2:30pm to stop the continuation of tall, skinny houses.

    Here is an in-depth post from early August on the Laurelhurst Blog.

    Sue, a Laurelhurst resident, told us that “efforts are heating to limit the proliferation of these houses and that Laurelhurst neighbors can take action immediately for Laurelhurst and citywide to and avoid future unwelcome structures on subpar lots that may exist near then — by contacting members of the city council immediately and asking each one to support the emergency legislation proposed by Councilmember Conlin, described in more detail below.

    Sue said that “Private citizens who care about neighborhood character, privacy and property values need to speak up as developer, Dan Duffus, is mustering support to fight the vote on Monday”.

    Information One Home Per Lot posted recently:

    It’s a very positive development for us. that Councilman Conlin is planning to introduce emergency legislation on Monday.

    However, there’s a problem: Dan Duffus, one of the most prolific builders of these backyard/side yard monstrosities is already trying to put a stop to the ordinance. He’s writing to all his builder and real estate friends and asking them to contact, and schedule meetings with, city council members (his actual email is included below for your review).

    Obviously, we need to counteract his efforts with an email/phone calling campaign of our own. We need to show council members that homeowners don’t want anymore of these things built in their neighborhoods. The folks making all the money from these structures are going to be throwing their weight around; now we need to step up to counteract their efforts.

    1. Share this information with your friends.
    2. Contact as many of the City Council members as you can (especially the council members Duffus is planning to meet with: Richard Conlin, Sally Clark, Jean Godden, Bruce Harrell, Tom Rasmussen) before noon tomorrow (Friday). Suggestions for what you could write/say are included below.
    3. Sign the petition asking for a moratorium on these monstrosities
    4. Post a comment on the OneHomePerLot website
    5. Attend the council session on Monday when city council members will vote on this emergency ordinance.


    Here is what Councilman Conlin wrote in an email yesterday:

    Want to let you know that the heat is on – today I introduced emergency legislation that would require lots to be at least 50% of the size of a legitimate building lot and would restrict the size of houses in lots smaller than 3750 square feet to that of an accessory dwelling unit.

    This legislation will stop the big houses while we work on a permanent fix. Councilmembers are supportive, but Duffus has already told us he will fight it, so we will need much support. It will come to a vote on Monday, and, as emergency legislation, will take effect immediately as soon as the Council votes it. I am attaching a copy.

    Here is an article in the Seattle Weekly about the legislation.


    Council Bill Number: 117572
    AN ORDINANCE relating to land use and zoning; amending Sections 23.44.010 and 23.44.012 of the Seattle Municipal Code to adopt interim development regulations to prohibit incompatible buildings on undersized single-family-zoned lots; and declaring an emergency requiring a three-fourths vote of the City Council so that the ordinance may take effect immediately.
    Status: In Committee
    Date introduced/referred to committee: September 4, 2012
    Committee: Full Council
    Sponsor: CONLIN
    References/Related Documents: Related: Clerk File 312516
    Fiscal Note: Fiscal Note to Council Bill 117572
    CITY OF SEATTLE ORDINANCE __________________
    COUNCIL BILL __________________
    AN ORDINANCE relating to land use and zoning; amending Sections 23.44.010 and 23.44.012 of the Seattle Municipal Code to adopt interim development regulations to prohibit incompatible buildings on undersized single-family-zoned lots; and declaring an emergency requiring a three-fourths vote of the City Council so that the ordinance may take effect immediately.
    Section 1. The City Council (“Council”) makes the following legislative findings of fact and declarations:
    1. The Council finds that land use code does not currently include appropriate development standards applying to single- family-zoned lots that are significantly less than the minimum lot size allowed; and, 2. The Council finds that the lack of appropriate development standards applicable to single-family-zoned lots that are significantly less than the minimum lot size allowed has resulted in new single-family dwellings that are, based on their height and lot coverage, out of scale and
    incompatible with adjacent existing single-family dwellings; and 3. The Council finds that the City is currently studying permanent changes to Chapter 23.44 of the Seattle Municipal Code that will result in new development standards addressing the problems created by new single-family dwellings on lots significantly less than the minimum lot
    size allowed in single-family zones; and 4. The Council finds that adopting interim standards will allow appropriately-sized single-family dwellings on these single-family-zoned lots to continue to be built during this interim period; and
    5. The Council finds that it has the authority to establish interim measures as granted by Article 11, Section 11 of the Washington State Constitution, and the Growth Management Act, Chapter 36.70A, RCW, and declares that an emergency exists; Section 2. Section 23.44.010 of the Seattle Municipal Code, which section was last amended by Ordinance 123809, is amended as follows:
    23.44.010 Lot requirements
    B. Exceptions to Minimum Lot Area Requirements. The following exceptions to minimum lot area requirements are allowed, subject to the development standards for undersized lots in subsection 23.44.010.C, except as limited under subsection 23.44.010.B.2: 1. A lot that does not satisfy the minimum lot area requirements of its zone may be developed or
    redeveloped separately under one of the following circumstances: d. The lot has an area at least 50 percent of the minimum required, and was established as a separate building site in the public records of the county or City prior to July 24, 1957, by deed, contract of sale, mortgage, (( )) platting or building permit, and falls into one of the following categories:
    C. Development standards for certain lots that qualify for the exception to minimum area in subsection 23.44.010.B.1.d. Development of any principal structure on those lots that meet the conditions outlined in subsection 23.44.010.B.1.d but have a total area less than (( )) 3,750 square feet shall comply with the ((
    1.The height standards of Section 23.44.012.A.3. )) standards for gross floor area and structure height contained in subsection 23.41.041 Table B, rows f and k, that apply to a detached accessory dwelling unit on a property of the same
    dimensions, in addition to complying with the other development standards for single family dwelling units in the zone.
    Section 3. Section 23.44.012 of the Seattle Municipal Code, which section was last amended by Ordinance 123809, is amended as follows:
    23.44.012 Height limits
    A. Maximum Height Established.
    1. Except as permitted in Section 23.44.041.B, and except as provided in subsection 23.44.010.C or subsections 23.44.012.A.2 and A.3, the maximum permitted height for any structure not located in a required yard is 30 feet.
    2. The maximum permitted height for any structure on a lot 30 feet or less in width is 25 feet, except as provided in subsection 23.44.010.C .4. ))The method of determining structure height and lot width is detailed in Chapter 23.86,



    This Emergency Ordinance was introduced without warning yesterday and will be voted on MONDAY SEPTEMBER 10th, 2012 at 2.30.

    This Ordinance IF PASSED BY 7 OF THE 9 Councilmen’s VOTE will put an immediate stop to development of Lots under 3,750 sq feet for one year while the Council Studies new code amendments which will most likely contain many of the same provisions. This is the largest taking by City Council since the 1988 Small Lot Ordinance, it is without due process. The fact they are calling it an “Emergency” is a farce in itself in that that same code has been in effect for almost 25 years now pertaining to Small Lots.

    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 (Estimated 80-85% of all small buildable lots are owned by Senior Citizens or Estates of Deceased folks who owned them).

    What can we do? I have been overwhelmed by calls and emails. I may not be able to respond right away myself. However, you and all your contacts have a voice. I have a meeting set up with Richard Conlin, Sally Clark and hopefully Tom Rasmussen. Larry Cobb and I are trying to get a meeting with Jean Godden as well. Mark Knoll is trying to set up a meeting with Bruce Harrell. If you have any contacts with any other City Council people, please call them and try to get a meeting.

    Here are the key talking points you should make if you do contact a City Council member. An Emergency Ordinance is not justified since the code has been in effect for over 20 years. The taking without Due Process for potential sellers puts an un-fair burden on those owners. People in process with DPD under the current code could be greatly financially impacted by this taking.

    Get on those phones and emails! Thanks everyone.
    Dan Duffus

    July 25 Seattle Weekly article
    OneHomePerLot website
    Laurelhurst Blog Post


    • You could mention the fact that developer Dan Duffus is writing to builders and real estate agents in an effort to squelch the ordinance — and point out that those are the entities that are benefiting from this loophole (not the elderly folks he mentions in his “talking points”). The truth is, the original property owners for whom this loophole was created (in 1957; 55 years ago) have all moved on (the current owners don’t even know the hidden second lots exist on their property; see item #5 below).
    • To justify this emergency action, you should mention the fact (as reported in the Seattle Weekly July 25th) that the Bothell-based research firm New Home Trends is about to launch software that will make it a snap for developers to hunt down the hidden second lots necessary to build side yard/backyard houses. That means, if something isn’t done now, there’s going to be rush of these projects once the software launches.
    • You could note that the current owners of homes with these hidden backyard/side yard lots usually have no idea one exists on their property (developers have to hire experts to find them); which means developers are able to buy the person’s property at a dramatic discount to its actual worth, turn around and build a second house on the property, then sell everything at a huge profit and move on to the next project.
    • This is a totally random way to try and increase density (no one, not even the Department of Planning and Development knows where these historic lots are located in the city, and only a select few properties have them).
    • There’s no neighborhood notification when one of these hidden backyard/side yard lots is put into play (and developers like it that way). Home owners have no warning that one of these three-story monoliths is about to pop up in their neighbor’s back or side yard until the bulldozers show up.
    • You might make note of the fact that developer Dan Duffus (the guy trying to squelch this emergency ordinance) is an insider who brags on his website about his contacts in the city and the Department of Planning and Development
    • Council members are extremely busy. To quickly get them up to speed on this issue, you could include a link to the Seattle Weekly article about this emergency legislation (which includes links to the OneHomePerLot website and the original Seattle Weekly article)

    View from neighbor’s back yard

  4. Pingback: Blaine residents say ‘not in your backyard’ — Council shuts down small lot tall-n-skinnies | montlaker

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