In Seattle – A Side Yard or Towering Toaster Box House?

by Lisa Parriott

monolith-houseIn 2012, Dianna McLeod, a senior citizen, called the City of Seattle’s DPD and asked if her side yard was a buildable lot.  She was told no.  Immediately following, developer Dan Duffus bought her property, split the lot in 2, built and sold a towering toaster box house on the new lot for a large profit.

Our neighbor, a senior citizen, contracted with a professional real estate agent to sell his home with a large side yard.  His north Admiral (West Seattle) property sold for $505,000 less than 14 months ago to developer Cliff Low. He now lives in a trailer park in Puyallup.  On January 12, 2017, 9AM @ Seattle Municipal Tower in Parriott vs. City of Seattle, the neighbors will make the case to the City’s Hearing Examiner that the side yard is not a separate building site, based on a 1957 City LU Code loophole – Historic Lot Exception.  If unsuccessful, Cliff Low will have secured a vacant lot in Seattle for little to no money.  He will be allowed to squeeze a towering toaster box home onto the side yard and walk away with over $400,000 profit.

Cliff Low sought the City’s approval that the 3,133sf side yard was a buildable site (in a SF 5000 zone) by paying $1,000 for a Legal Building Site Letter of Opinion (Legal BS LOO).  When the neighbors asked the City’s DCI staff about this process, they said there was no documented process and no Code to support this long-standing practice.  The neighbors reviewed over 81 Legal BS LOOs written by the City (issued 2013-2015) and found that developers requested almost all of the Legal BS LOOs and most were approved – with liberal Code interpretation.

The Benchview Neighborhood challenged the City’s building permit allowing Dan Duffus to construct 2-3 homes on a side yard in a 2014 decision by going straight to King County Superior Court.  The City Code was changed to close that door to neighbors, and also made the process more expensive.  The access fee to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the US, is less than $400.  Today, neighbors must pay a minimum $3,320 and sign a financial agreement to pay for City staff time to defend their decision at a rate of $315/hr (for every hour spent after 10 with no maximum limit) – just to access the City’s Hearing Examiner. The City collects this $3,320 from each party who files a legal challenge on a specific decision (10 challenges – City collects a minimum $33,200/per decision).

Since the DCI is fee funded, and developers pay the bulk of the fees, we see a conflict of interest in these decisions. We also feel that an unequal financial barrier has been erected to discourage reasonable challenges in decisions about the creation of small lots and infill in Seattle: $1000 paid by developers for a buildable lot determination vs. a minimum of $3320 paid by a citizen who wishes to challenge the creation of such a site.  This is also a matter of a social and equity injustice.




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