City City Design Reviewer Wants Someone to Sue the City
posted by January 25 at 16:55 PMon
David Foster reviews development proposals for southwest Seattle’s design-review board. An architect himself, he loathes that developers are using a loophole to build ugly, cookie-cutter townhouses without public notice or review—and he believes the city is allowing them to skirt the review process in violation of state law.
Large developments in Seattle are supposed to be reviewed under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), which triggers a design review by the city. This ensures the finished devlopment fits with the neighborhood and doesn’t kill fish. However, some developers have found a way around that process called “piecemealing”: By applying for separate building permits for smaller adjacent properties, developers can build major projects but only submit to the scrutiny of a simple construction, like building a house. Jonah wrote about it in July. But the practice is continuing, and Foster is pissed. He studied what was happening around his office on California Ave SW and sent a letter to West Seattle Blog. Here’s an excerpt.
That project [3400 block of California] is for 16 new townhouses, which is well above the threshold for SEPA Review and Design Review, but it was issued a construction permit without going through either review.
How? The applicants employed an illegal trick called micropermitting (aka segmented permitting). The threshold for SEPA (and Design Review) in this zone (L3-RC) is 9 units or more. The developer maneuvered underneath the threshold by pulling plans for 4 fourplexes off the shelf, and applying for multiple permits. The result - unless this project is challenged - will be another crappy, cookie cutter project that did not receive proper reviews.
This situation got me curious about other projects that might be employing the same illegal strategy, so I took a little field trip through West Seattle. In an hour’s time I found 5 projects that were built in the last year, and 3 more that are under construction.
You can download Foster’s findings on the properties he reviewed (in Excel) over here.
This Wallingford townhouse devlopment isn’t piecemealed, but it shows the impact these developments have on a neighborhood.
Another crusader against unreviewed townhouses, Vlad Oustimovitch, sent a letter to the Director Department of Planning and Development last February outlining the state policy that prohibits piecemealing:
SEPA clearly states in section 2.3 that you are required to “Define the total proposal, including any independent parts” and further clarified “It is important to remember that actions are related if they are dependent on each other, so that one will not happen without the other….”
“I’d like to see a lawsuit brought against the city to see if it’s illegal,” says Foster, “because I’m convinced that it is.”
“I’m not a lawyer, but, yes, it is legal,” says Cliff Portman, a principal land use planner with the city’s Department of Planning and Development. He says that, because the city receives separate proposals, the developers can effectively argue the developments are independent. “They could take some of proposals off table, then we’d have no choice but to process the one. Then six months later the next one comes in.”
“When it’s done, it’s over the environmental-review threshold,” says Portman. “I know it sounds illogical but I guess that’s a loophole.”
Portman says that precedent for issuing permits under these conditions in the past requires them to continue permitting piecemeal townhouses.
“Somewhere between the language of SEPA legislation and the actual permits that are issued there are a series of very small tiny little decisions,” explains Oustimovitch. “They’ve managed to circumvent the original intent of the law.”
Portman recognizes the problem but says it’s out of DPD’s hands; only the mayor or council can change the rules. “What we want most is design review. Maybe we not ought worry about SEPA, but ‘how do we get design review applied [to all townhouses]?’” says Portman.