Want to keep a small-lot house from being built in YOUR Seattle neighborhood? Start here.
Understand the building codes
The building codes for backyard and side yard houses are different than the codes for standard homes. They’re far more forgiving and less restrictive. For an overview of the most controversial small-lot-development building codes (and how they recently changed), see this document.
The rules regarding setbacks, structure heights, short plats and more are all covered in Title 23 (the Land Use Code) of the Seattle Municipal Code.
Tell the PLUZ committee how angry you are
The Planning, Land Use and Zoning committee (a committee of the Seattle City Council) is the group charged with overseeing the Department of Construction & Inspections (formerly the Department of Planning and Development) and the development of small-lot housing. The members of that committee are regularly lobbied by developers, so it’s important that citizens also take the time to call and meet with them.
Ask all your neighbors to contact all the members of the PLUZ committee by phone and email. Contact information for the committee.
Attend town hall meetings (and other public events where there are media and constituents), and pester the councilmember(s) with difficult questions about this issue.
Attend PLUZ committee meetings (here are some suggestions).
Get to know the developers and their tactics
Learn more about the developers, architects, contractors and lobbyist behind these projects:
- See the lobbying website the developers have created.
- Visit the Blueprint website to learn about the company that provides developers with the funding to build these projects (and see this map page to learn where the projects are being built).
- Visit the Soleil Development website (run by Dan Duffus and also known as AE2, LLC; one of Seattle’s most prolific builders of small-lot houses).
- Visit the Granger Family Homes website (another well-known builder of small-lot houses).
- Visit the Elemental Architecture website (also known as PB Elemental) to learn about the firm that designs small-lot houses.
- Visit the Epic Homes website (another well-known small-lot house builder).
- Visit the Classic City Homes website (another well-known small-lot house builder).
- Visit the Noren Development website (another well-known small-lot house builder).
Don’t allow the developer to move any fences
Over time, fences between neighbors usually end up veering off the true property line – especially on older properties, where the fences have been rebuilt multiple times. Often, the developer will need to get a neighbor to agree to move the fence back to the historical property line before they can get approval to build a small-lot house. If the neighbors refuse to move their fences, it can stop the project dead in its tracks. This is one of your best defenses.
- Learn about “adverse possession” and fences
- Learn about recent changes to the adverse possession law
- Read a detailed report about adverse posession
- The Department of Construction & Inspections does not get involved in fence / property line disputes (learn more).
Learn the basics about the parcel in question
Use the following tools to learn more about the parcel in question:
- Use the King County Department of Assessments website to learn the parcel number for the property (you’ll need it for additional research), the name of the current owner, the appraised value of the land / property and more:
- Click the “Start parcel viewer” button to get started
- Type the address of the property into the search box in the upper left corner
- Click the “search” button just to the right of the search box
- Once the property appears on the screen, select the “property report”
- Use the Department of Construction & Inspections parcel Data website to learn about the zoning for the property, the size of the lot, details about the house, whether it has a legal detached accessory dwelling unit, details about the current owner, and more:
- Enter the exact address information into the search boxes (or simply enter the parcel number)
- Click the “search” button
- When the property listing appears on your screen, click on each of the blue, horizontal bars to see the detailed information
- Use this Department of Construction & Inspections GIS web tool to see visual representations of the property boundary lines, the lot zoning, tree coverage and more:
- Type the address of the property into the search box in the upper-left corner
- Click the zoom icon (upper-left corner) to zoom-in on the property shown on the map
- Use the check boxes in the left margin to select the items you want illustrated on the map (we recommend selecting “building outlines,” “parcels,” “”tree canopy,” “detailed zoning,” and “overlay”)
- Use Redfin or Zillow to learn the estimated market value for the property (this is different than the appraised value), the sales history for the property, to read the real estate listing, and more.
Learn the status of any permits for the property
You typically only have 21 days from the time a building / land-use permit is issued to protest the project via a LUPA appeal. To learn the status of any permit’s related to the project:
- Search by permit number or property address
- Another resource for searching by permit number or property address
- Access the city’s internal permit database (click the “Permitting” button in the right margin)
- Search for permits using a map
Get the developer’s plans for the property
The developer’s plans for the property will show not only the new structure to be built, but also any lot boundary adjustments made, trees to be saved and more.
- To get a copy of the plans, visit the Department of Construction & Inspections Public Resource Center in downtown Seattle
- You may also find a digital copy of the plans on the Department of Construction & Inspections Permit and Property Records page
NOTE: If the project is not being constructed per the approved set plans, you can file a complaint asking the inspector to request the developer submit a “post permit revision” application, which allows any revisions or changes to be reviewed for compliance.
Track the documents exchanged
One way to track the status of the project is to track the documents exchanged. To see all the documents, enter the project/permit number into this SDCI page, then click the Search button.
Check the deed for restrictive covenants
In 2009, a group of neighbors in Mt. Baker succeeded in stopping the construction of a small-lot house once they discovered that the original deeds for each property in the neighborhood included a covenant that stated only one home could be built on each lot. The developer had already purchased a lot and begun planning to divide it. Instead, the neighbors sued, arguing, “one house on one lot means no houses on half lots.” Today, that half lot is a community garden, not a backyard house.
- Read a first-hand account what these neighbors did
- Research a deed via the King County Recorder’s office online search tool
- Learn more about deed restrictions
- See the paperwork from a related lawsuit in Hunts Point
Contact Andy at the SDCI
Andy McKim (SDCI Supervisor, Land Use Planner) is the person at the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections who handles almost all of the small-lot project applications. He reviews the basic proposals submitted by the developers, consults with those developers about their proposals, then rules on whether those proposals are legal or not.
- Andy McKim: (206) 684-8737 / Andy.McKim@seattle.gov
- Ask about the status of any boundary lot adjustment request (i.e. when is the decision expected to be delivered)
- If the lot adjustment has already been approved, request a copy of the “opinion letter” (see a sample)
- Ask about the status of any associated building permit (or if it’s already been approved, ask for the building permit number)
Ask the SDCI for more information
Phone numbers for the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections.
Use the Department of Construction & Inspections Q&A Service to get an answer to a land use question via email.
Meet with the builder / developer
After gaining an in-depth understanding of the situation (see the steps above), schedule an in-person meeting with the builder / developer to discuss your concerns and wants. Nominate one or two neighborhood representatives for this meeting (do not bring the whole neighborhood). Come with a list of specifics. And take detailed notes of the conversation. Face-to-face conversations between reasonable, well-informed people are how big breakthroughs can often be accomplished. At the very least, you can tell the media, the court and city leaders that you tried to reason with the builder before taking more forceful measures.
Hire a lawyer/attorney
Included below is the contact information for lawyers/attorneys who have successfully represented homeowners in cases involving small-lot houses:
Hire a consultant
It can be very difficult to determine on your own whether a small-lot house is legal and code-compliant. Fortunately, there are a number of local experts who can quickly root out any infractions:
- Jim Fair of Fair Building Technology (see his LinkedIn profile)
- Rena Klein of RM Klein Consulting
- Hainline & Associates
- BHC Consultants
File a complaint with the SDCI
To file a complaint about the project with the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections, visit this Web page.
File a LUPA appeal
In the state of Washington, if you want to appeal a small-lot house project, you must do so within 21 days “of the issuance of the land use decision” (which usually means the issuance of a building permit, but can be interpreted otherwise), and you must do so via a process known as a Land Use Petition Act (LUPA) appeal. Typically, this requires a land use lawyer, but you will find an example below of an ordinary citizen filing a LUPA appeal with no legal representation.
- For all the details, see Chapter 36.70C of the Revised Code of Washington
- For a developer’s perspective on LUPA appeals, see this article
See the documents from this West Seattle neighborhood’s LUPA lawsuit against the city and developers (the lawyer charged $30k; all the neighbors contributed):
- The opening brief
- The response from the city’s lawyers
- The response from the developers’ lawyers
- The neighborhood’s reply to the other lawyers’ arguments
- Live blog of the court hearing for the case
- The judge’s ruling
- Seattle Times article about the judge’s ruling
See this LUPA lawsuit filed by the lawyer for a Queen Anne couple:
- The original petition
- The opening brief
- The city’s response
- the couple’s reply to the city’s response
And see this LUPA lawsuit filed by a Green Lake neighborhood resident with no legal representation:
- Citizen LUPA lawsuit: Tulintseff vs. City of Seattle
File an appeal with the city Hearing Examiner
Rather than file a LUPA lawsuit (see above), you can file an appeal with the City of Seattle Hearing Examiner (but only if the lot in question is 3,200 square feet or smaller). It’s our understanding that the city hearing examiner will not hear complaints involving larger-sized lots, but you should check to make sure.
Information regarding the Seattle City Office of Hearing Examiner.
You should hire a land use lawyer to represent you before the hearing examiner, but an ordinary citizen can appear with no legal representation.
In the past, you first had to request a “code interpretation” from the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections. It was a required “exhaustion of administrative remedies” step in the hearing examiner appeals process. The cost for that interpretation is a minimum of $3,150.
However, in August, 2017, the city council passed an amendment that eliminates the interpretation requirement. According to this Seattle Times article, “Opponents will no longer need to start by requesting interpretations. They’ll be able to go straight to the Seattle Hearing Examiner or to King County Superior Court. The change could help people without much money challenge projects, a City Council analysis said. However, it also could help neighbors block projects they consider undesirable, such as low-income housing and homeless shelters.”
In addition, there may be other fees (at a rate of $280-plus/hour) that the city charges you to defend itself in a hearing.
See the pre-hearing brief filed by one Seattle neighborhood in their hearing examiner appeal.
Review the SDCI rules
Learn the rules regarding construction noise and more on this page of the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections website.
The city of Seattle has rules preventing the removal of trees on the property (especially “exceptional” trees). However, they also allow developers “flexibility” regarding those rules. Learn more.
Report any construction infractions
Once the project gets underway, you can report any construction infractions directly to the Department of Construction & Inspections at this website. If the infraction is serious, these can result in “stop-work orders.”
- You can also post your complaint and photos on this Facebook page.
- Learn more about how to file a complaint (and how the DPD responds to these complaints).
Report other infractions
If the construction is too noisy, the workers litter, or their equipment blocks streets or sidewalks, you can report those infractions to the Seattle Customer Service Bureau.
Protect your home from the associated construction damage
This New York Times article talks about how you can protect your home from any damage (wall cracks, sinking foundation, etc.) caused by a next-door construction project.
Buy the property from the developer
Buying the property from the developer (most certainly at an inflated price) may sound ludicrous. But if you talk to the people who have had a small-lot house built next to them, they usually say they wished they’d pooled their money with other neighbors and bought the lot after they learned what the developer was doing.
Estimate your lost value
The impact one of these projects can have on the value of your home can be significant. For tips on estimating that cost, see these resources:
- Alan Pope of Alan L. Pope & Associates is an expert at determining lost value (and acting as an expert witness in any associated legal cases).
- Richard Hagar of American Home Appraisals is a Seattle-based expert at determining lost value (and acting as an expert witness in the associated legal cases).
- Strickland, Heischman & Hoss, Inc. is another local expert resource for estimating lost value.
- Wall St. Journal article about estimating the value of a view.
- Smart Money article about the limitations of using online value-finder tools for estimates.
- Seattle Times article about estimating lost value in a court case.
- Seattle PI blog post about a real estate agent who acted as an appraiser in a court case.
Establish an online presence
Having an online presence is one of the best ways to galvanize neighborhood resistance, garner media coverage and get the attention of city leaders. See the four different approaches these neighborhoods have used:
- The Benchview neighborhood created this wordpress website
- The Wallingford neighborhood used a neighborhood blog
- The Montlake neighborhood used a Facebook page
- The Fremont neighborhood built a WordPress website
Once you have an online presence, you need to let neighbors know about it. Delivering flyers door-to-door is easy, efficient and low-cost.
Create a petition
This is a good way to demonstrate that you have widespread support for your cause. See this example.
Print yard signs
Yard signs are great for letting the neighbors (and the developer, and the media, and others) know that the community is united in the fight against your neighborhood’s small-lot house. Just be sure to ask permission before placing a sign in anyone’s yard.
- To produce the signs, use this local yard sign printer (Boruck Printing & Silkscreen)
- See the rules regarding yard signs
- See examples of yard (and roof-top) signs
Gather email addresses
Keeping the neighbors informed as things progress is important. And email is a very efficient way to do so. However, recipients will probably become disillusioned if you send them messages more often than once a week.
Take photos and video
Whether you’re planning legal action, or documenting the impact, photos and video are very important (and usually something people regret not doing more).
Find the historic lots in your neighborhood
It takes real effort to find the historic sub-lots that qualify for development, because they aren’t included on modern day survey maps. The developers ask real estate agents to keep an eye out, and scout around for potential sites on their own, then hire professional researchers to dig through the historical archives. However, if you are able to find these parcels in your neighborhood before the developer, you can take preemptive steps to keep any small-lot houses from being built:
- Note: This is less of a problem now that the Department of Construction & Inspections has
- The Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives is the primary holding place for most of Seattle’s historical land documents.
- The city’s old side-sewer maps sometimes show the extra tax parcels on a lot (find your parcel, then click on the “recommended side sewer card(s).”
- For more tips, see this document and this FAQ page from the King County GIS Center.