This post has been updated.
The Queen Anne Community Council, which filed a formal appeal last month seeking to stop the portion of the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda that would make it somewhat easier for homeowners to build cottages, attached granny flats, and garage apartments, is seeking to raise $25,000 in contributions to defeat the legislation.
Tomorrow, the city will announce the dissolution of the existing Neighborhood District Council system, which will be replaced by a single “Community Involvement Commission.”
The city has filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, prompting the appellant, former Planning Commissioner and onetime city council candidate Marty Kaplan, to blast an email to “thousands of Seattle residents” claiming that the city’s motion “flies in the face of the City of Seattle’s Mission Statement, including: “To promote democracy on the local level by facilitating citizen debate on public issues and participation in government decision-making” and asking for contributions toward the anti-cottage legal fund. “We now must fight harder than ever to preserve our right to review and debate professional environmental impact studies and advance our “participation in government decision-making,” the fundraising plea continues (underlines and italics in original.)
Technically, the community council is charging that the city violated the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) by determining that the code changes in legislation proposed by council member Mike O’Brien have no significant environmental impact. In addition to allowing one more potential detached or attached accessory unit (a DADU or an ADU) per lot, the legislation would loosen the residency requirement for homeowners to build second units, and eliminate the current parking requirement, which mandates one new parking space for each new ADU or DADU.
Those proposals have been public since this time last year, but the council’s website insists the city is trying to sneak them through with no public notice:
The council says it needs the $25,000 to pay for attorneys’ fees, evidence collection, and expert witnesses to testify before the city Hearing Examiner, who rules on cases involving SEPA.
The appeal, filed by community council member, architect and former Seattle Planning Commission member Marty Kaplan, makes several familiar claims: First, the city has made no efforts to involve neighbors in the HALA process. (Neighborhood representatives were on the original HALA committee and the more than 160 members of the HALA focus groups represent neighborhoods across the city. )
Second: O’Brien’s legislation will upzone the entire city and turn every single-family house into a triplex. (HALA will allow homeowners to theoretically build two new units, unlike the current one unit that is already allowed under existing code, but won’t force any homeowners to build anything. Building is expensive, and simply allowing both a basement and a garage apartment certainly won’t turn anything into a “triplex” any more than existing code has turned every single-family house into a “duplex.”)
Third, allowing more backyard cottages will do nothing to accomplish HALA’s aim of providing more affordable housing. (Again, the proposed changes wouldn’t force anyone to build anything, although any increase in housing supply helps ease the housing shortage that’s at the heart of the current affordability crisis.)
At its heart, the appeal isn’t so much about the specifics of HALA or even about O’Brien’s legislation. It’s about the feeling, voiced repeatedly at community meetings around the city, that neighborhoods are being “left out of the process.” After all, nothing in O’Brien’s legislation can possibly be news to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of what’s in the HALA plan released last year; the plan for DADUs and ADUs, including the proposed changes to the parking and owner-occupancy requirements, is right there in black and white on page 25:
Instead, the appeal is about the deepening feeling among community councils that the city no longer listens to them like it used to. “We are witnessing a paradigm shift to top-down directives based upon an ideological shift that will forever convert all our neighborhoods without presenting one professional impact study, community conversation, public hearing, EIS (environmental impact statement) or any facts whatsoever that accurately identify and publicly discuss the impacts to all neighborhoods,” the council’s website claims. “Neighborhoods have always partnered in decision-making, but now neighborhoods are ignored and we are forced to appeal as we ask for facts, analysis, and proof that converting single family property neighborhoods to multi-family will have no impacts.”
The feeling that’s at the heart of sentiments like that–we used to have all the seats at the table, and now we have to share–isn’t entirely unjustified. Tomorrow, the city will announce the dissolution of the existing Neighborhood District Council system, which will be replaced by a single “Community Involvement Commission.”
As I reported earlier this year, the city’s department of neighborhoods, under director Kathy Nyland, is making efforts to reach out to those who’ve traditionally been excluded from the neighborhood planning process, like the renters who make up half the city, and give them a voice. Doing so will necessarily make the property owners who wrote the current neighborhood plans, and are now willing to spend thousands of dollars to prevent changes that allow more people to live in “their” neighborhoods, uncomfortable. When you’re used to owning the table, being asked to make room can feel like exclusion. But for the half of the city that has never had much of a say, as well as the tens of thousands who don’t even live here yet, the changes look like something else: Progress.