Mike O’Brien’s proposal to loosen regulation of backyard cottages and Mother-in-Law apartments will not trigger an environmental review under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), due to a finding by Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD). OPCD issued a “Determination of Non-Significance” (DNS) under SEPA on May 19, when O’Brien released his proposed bill.
OPCD’s DNS finding is an absurd dodge to avoid a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which would reveal the many significant consequences of O’Brien’s proposed changes to existing law. Our colleague from Lake City, Sandra Perkins, has assembled a thorough set of comments detailing the insufficiencies of the DNS. She has submitted these comments to OPCD.
You are encouraged to submit your own comments in the next two days. (Sandra offers her comments as a template for others.) The deadline for public comment on the DNS is Thursday, June 2. Send your comments to Nick Welch at OPCD: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps the worst provision of O’Brien’s bill allows absentee landlords to own properties containing cottages and apartments in single-family zones. Currently, the owner of the property must live there at least 6 months of each year. Under O’Brien’s law, the owner must live in the property for one year after the construction of a detached unit, but then may sell the property. Here’s Sandra’s comment:
There is no doubt that developers are poised to exploit every detail of these new regulations to make as much money as possible. … What would prevent developers or speculators from offering to finance the creation of ADUs and DADUs in exchange for the option to purchase the properties from the owners after one year? That would not lead to more affordable housing, but would certainly increase profits for developers and other speculators, while reducing the quality of life in single-family neighborhoods. Essentially, these proposed changes in the ADU/DADU rules are an upzone of all single-family neighborhoods to allow duplexes and triplexes, and they will change single-family neighborhoods forever (with no guarantee that more affordable housing will result). [emphasis added]
Click “Continue” to read Sandra’s complete comments.
Comments by Sandra Perkins
Attn: Nick Welch
PO Box 34019
Seattle, WA 98124-4019
Nicolas.email@example.comDear Mr. Welch,
I have received the Notice of Land Use Code Text Amendments re the Proposed Amendments to SMC Chapter 23.44, related to ADUs and DADUs. I have reviewed the Determination of Non-Significance (DNS) regarding the proposed changes in the laws related to ADUs and DADUs.
The finding of DNS appears to be based primarily on the fact that adopting this legislation is a “non-project action,” and therefore would have no immediate adverse impacts. When evaluating the potential long term impacts that could arise as a result of this legislation, OPCD appears to accept the City’s contentions that the impacts would be so indirect and so diffused around the City that no one would notice any difference. (In fact, reading the SEPA Environmental Checklist made me wonder why the City is proposing this legislation at all, if the additional housing units to be built and the impacts therefrom are expected to be so minimal.)
Before I state my comments, I have a few questions.
1. Is it reasonable for the City to take the position that this proposed legislation has no significant environmental impact simply because no specific development project is being proposed at this time? The proposed legislation is intended to encourage many specific projects, i.e., more ADUs and DADUs. Isn’t it disingenuous for the City to claim:
“The proposed changes would result in no direct impacts, and are unlikely to result in significant indirect or cumulative adverse impacts related to earth, air, water, plants/animals, fisheries, energy, natural resources, sensitive areas, noise, or releases of toxic/hazardous substances. At the non-project stage, it is not possible to meaningfully assess the potential impacts on the natural environment from these modifications, in the absence of a known proposed development of an ADU or a DADU.”
When specific ADU and DADU projects are proposed, they will each be considered in isolation, thus minimizing the perceived environmental impact of each new ADU and DADU. Isn’t now the only opportunity to consider the OVERALL environmental impact of this proposed legislation? Is the City deliberately ignoring the foreseeable significant cumulative impacts of this proposed legislation, discussed in my specific comments below?
2. More importantly, even as the City ignores the foreseeable significant cumulative impacts of the proposed ADU/DADU legislation, this proposed legislation is part of a much greater “package” of legislation which the City intends to propose and enact in the near future. The City’s many HALA proposals have direct and substantial environmental impacts, as the stated goal of HALA is to provide 50,000 new housing units in the next ten years (30,000 market rate units, and 20,000 “affordable” units).
It is undeniable that the cumulative effect of the HALA proposals and the 50,000 new housing units that result will have a huge environmental impact on Seattle. Why is the City allowed to submit all of these separate proposals on a “piecemeal” basis, claiming that each piece is not significant on its own, when it is clear and obvious that the overall cumulative environmental impact of the HALA proposals is significant and substantial, possibly even drastic? Is this “piecemeal” approach to the environmental impact of HALA the result of a strategic decision by the City to push this legislation through quickly, regardless of its substantial environmental impact?
This proposed ADU/DADU legislation should be subjected to a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the following reasons:
1. Natural Environment. The proposed changes will allow and encourage more DADUs to be built, including DADUs on lots that already have ADUs, and DADUs on smaller lots than currently allowed (3200 SF lots instead of the current minimum of 4000 SF lots). Approximately 7300 additional single-family lots will become eligible for DADUs with this change. Allowing DADUs on these smaller lots will have a significant impact on tree canopy in single-family neighborhoods, especially those neighborhoods like Queen Anne with many smaller lots. Seattle is already losing its tree canopy at an alarming rate, and this change in the law would accelerate that trend.
This change in the law will also lead to greater areas of impervious surfaces in single-family neighborhoods, which will cause more storm water runoff and drainage issues.
Combined sewer overflows (described in #3 below) are already a problem in many neighborhoods, and this legislation will add housing units that will contribute more sewage, which will increase pollution in our lakes and waterways.
The issues of loss of tree canopy, increased areas of impervious surfaces, and increased sewage in combined sewer overflows should be analyzed and addressed in a full EIS.
2. Transportation. While it is true that current regulations already allow 8 unrelated people to share a single-family home, that is more of a theoretical possibility than a common occurrence. Changing the rules to allow and encourage more DADUs on single-family lots, and to allow both a DADU and an ADU on the same single-family lot, will significantly increase the average number of adults living on a single-family lot, which will lead to more cars in the block/ neighborhood. The new regulations would also eliminate the requirement to provide an off-street parking space for the ADU or DADU. Together with the increased number of adults living on a single-family lot, this change will overtax the available street parking and will also cause significant additional traffic in neighborhoods where traffic is already heavy. This problem will be exacerbated if the people living in the ADU and/or DADU own more than one car. Public transportation is totally inadequate in many neighborhoods (including central neighborhoods like Queen Anne and Wallingford); service is often infrequent, and the existing buses are packed with standing room only most of the time. It is simply not realistic to expect the occupants of ADUs and DADUs to forego owning cars; this is wishful thinking. Even if these new residents wish to use public transportation as much as possible, they will increase the burden on the already inadequate public transportation infrastructure, perhaps to the breaking point.
The burden of these proposed regulations on our transportation infrastructure and street parking should be analyzed and addressed in a full EIS.
3. Utilities and Public Services. For the same reasons set forth in # 2 above, these changed regulations will burden utilities and other city services. Many homes already have inadequate water pressure, and sewer lines are failing. In older neighborhoods like Queen Anne, there are areas served by side-sewers that are often old and inadequate. Combined sewer overflows are already a regular problem in many Seattle neighborhoods, such as Wallingford and Ballard. Has the impact of additional ADUs and DADUs on combined sewer overflows in these neighborhoods been considered? Does it really make sense to add more people to single-family neighborhoods without fixing the infrastructure first?
The burden of these proposed regulations on our utilities infrastructure and other public services should be analyzed and addressed in a full EIS.
4. Changing the Owner-Occupied Requirement. Currently an owner of a single-family home with an ADU or DADU must reside there at least six months a year. These new regulations propose to eliminate that requirement one year after the DADU or ADU is permitted. This change will lead to a speculative market for homes with DADUs and ADUs, which will likely have a significant impact on Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods. Developers and speculators will buy up these homes with ADUs and/or DADUs and rent them out at the highest rents they can get.
There is no doubt that developers are poised to exploit every detail of these new regulations to make as much money as possible. It is positive to allow and encourage DADUs and ADUs to help Seattle citizens stay in their homes and get some cash flow from renting out an ADU or DADU. It is entirely different (and not at all positive) to allow developers and speculators to buy up multiple homes with ADUs and DADUs to operate as large rental businesses. What would prevent developers or speculators from offering to finance the creation of ADUs and DADUs in exchange for the option to purchase the properties from the owners after one year? That would not lead to more affordable housing, but would certainly increase profits for developers and other speculators, while reducing the quality of life in single-family neighborhoods. Essentially, these proposed changes in the ADU/DADU rules are an upzone of all single-family neighborhoods to allow duplexes and triplexes, and they will change single-family neighborhoods forever (with no guarantee that more affordable housing will result).
The burden of these proposed regulations on single -family neighborhoods, and the likelihood that they will be exploited by nonresidents for profit, should be analyzed and addressed in a full EIS.
5. The Burdens Outweigh the Benefits. The City’s estimate suggests that changing these regulations will not increase the number of ADUs and DADUs substantially. I quote from page 15 of the SEPA Environmental Checklist:
“Annual reports surveying current production of attached and detached dwelling units in Seattle suggest that, to date, approximately 1,050 attached accessory dwelling units and approximately 220 detached accessory dwelling units have been permitted and/or constructed through the end of 2015. Since 2010, the annual production rate for detached accessory dwelling units has averaged 34 units/year and only once exceeded 40 units in a single year. There are approximately 124,000 single-family zoned lots in Seattle in use for single-family residential development. Under current regulations, only one percent of single-family lots have added an attached or detached accessory dwelling unit. It would be speculative to project a specific increase in the production rate of accessory dwelling units resulting from this proposal. However, because the proposed amendments are incremental modifications of existing regulations, it is reasonable to assume that the production rate of attached and detached accessory dwelling units will be moderate and not constitute a dramatic or exponential shift from currently observed patterns.
“For the purposes of analysis and discussion, OPCD considered a scenario in which as many as five percent of the approximately 75,000 single-family lots eligible for a detached accessory dwelling unit added an attached and/or detached accessory dwelling unit. If produced over a 20-year period, this quantity of new accessory dwelling units would translate to less than a six-fold increase over currently observed annual production rates. A production rate increase of this magnitude is greater than what can be reasonably expected as a result of this proposal – but even if realized would have only a minor effect on single-family zones as a whole. This theoretical less-than-sixfold production rate increase, which would result in less than 4,000 new accessory dwelling units in single-family zones citywide, remains consistent with the Seattle 2035 Comprehensive Plan Update, which estimates that of the 12 percent of the population and housing growth expected in Seattle over the next 20 years will occur outside of urban centers and villages. The majority of single-family lots where attached and detached accessory dwelling units can be constructed are located outside urban centers and villages.”
If the City’s estimates are correct, then there is no reason to enact these legislative changes; they will not make any real difference in affordable housing. If, however, the City has failed to anticipate the likelihood that developers and speculators will take full advantage of these new regulations to buy up single-family homes with ADUs and DADUs more than one year after the ADUs and DADUs are permitted (perhaps even encouraging home owners to permit them through providing financing), these changes will lead to many more DADUs and ADUs in Seattle which will be rented out by nonresident owners. That will have a drastic impact on the quality of life in single-family neighborhoods all over Seattle (while being unlikely to lead to more affordable housing).
These potential impacts of this proposed legislation should be analyzed and addressed in a full EIS.
Thank you for considering my comments.