A matter of size: Satterlee House lawn-development dispute


We reported briefly yesterday (morning update here; afternoon update here) about the start of proceedings before the city Hearing Examiner over what the owner of the “Satterlee House”/”Painted Lady” at 4866 Beach Drive will be allowed to build on the huge front lawn shown above. Testimony continues Thursday morning on the 40th floor of the Municipal Tower downtown; before too much time passed, we wanted to post a more complete wrapup of what we saw and heard while covering the proceedings yesterday:

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

It’s all about size.

William Conner, who bought the Satterlee House from its namesake owner for $900,000 in 2000 and now has it listed for $2.2 million, got much of its front lawn subdivided into three lots.

Years after a plan to build cottages there died, Conner now wants to build three two-story, modern-architecture-style houses in the 3,000-square-foot size vicinity.

Since the house and its site have City of Seattle Landmark status — conferred more than a quarter-century ago — any building proposal must be signed off on by the city Landmarks Preservation Board.

This proposal is the only one they said “no” to for all of 2007, according to board coordinator Beth Chave, one of the witnesses Monday during the first full day of testimony.

Chave explained that usually, owners are able to work something out long before a proposal goes to the full Landmarks Board for a vote. The venue is usually the board’s Architecture Review Committee. In testimony yesterday, Chave explained that Conner and his lawyer Richard Hill went before that committee repeatedly but did not amend the proposal to address the committee’s concerns — the size and scale of the homes. Their contention was that it was economically infeasible to build anything smaller on those sites, so they insisted on taking a relatively unmodified proposal all the way to the full Landmarks Board, which said no.

And so, the dispute now is in the hands of the city Hearing Examiner, Sue Tanner, who has the final say, barring a court challenge to whatever she decides.

Her hearing room is somewhat like a courtroom, although the two opposing sides sit in a more informal arrangement, directly across each other at a large table that is beneath the slightly elevated area where Tanner and her paralegal sit. For the first full day of testimony yesterday — which was preceded only by an afternoon of testimony last week from the home’s previous owner, David Satterlee (WSB coverage here) — Conner and Hill sat across from the two lawyers representing the city, Judy Barbour and Eleanore Baxendale..

The city is presenting its case first, and will continue calling witnesses when the proceedings resume on Friday morning. Yesterday, as we mentioned here and here, they began with Chave and Karen Gordon, who runs the city’s Historic Preservation Program, before moving on to expert witnesses who focused on details of the condition of the property and what might be feasibly developed on it.

Appraiser Robert Chamberlain testified in the afternoon; his contention was that the property could be profitably developed with homes around 1,800 square feet each, with homes “totally responsive to the (Satterlee) house” — homes that might have a Craftsman look to them, rather than the glass/stucco construction in Conner’s original proposal.

William Partin, from a firm that does CPA and “forensic economics” work, said that he feels Conner would get a reasonable rate of return from the land “without any changes to the property” — 6 1/2 percent, he estimated.

But the property needs work, separate from potential development, testified another expert witness, Mark Lawless, yesterday morning. He evaluated the condition of the Satterlee House and testified that “the existing house has some distress … Its west side has settled, a foot in some places … there is a slope to it (the house’s floor) that is noticeable when you walk in.” So for starters, he said, to rehabilitate the Satterlee House would require about $75,000 in work just to “jack up” the settled side.

Once that happens, he testified, “the lathe and plaster and wood trim” throughout the house would likely crack, as would “grout joints.” He noted that the basement floor already is cracked. So all that would require extensive additional interior work. The main problem, he explained, is that the entire site has been filled, and that would have to be addressed during development as well.

Lawless also, like Chamberlain later in the day, suggested the property would do better to have three homes built in the 2,000-square-foot vicinity, a third smaller than Conner has proposed. He talked about going to a website called ePlans and finding three designs that could be built. “It’s a desirable location,” he acknowledged, but “these are not estate properties.” His contention was that smaller, Craftsman-style houses would fit into the neighborhood better while honoring the Satterlee House’s landmark status by not detracting from its prominence on the site.

One item that will come up for testimony as the case continues is a “view easement” that Conner negotiated during a previous development proposal, involving a 45-foot “view corridor” on the lawn — 45 feet from the potential new development along the north side of the lot (to the left of the photo at the top of this article). The development proposal includes that “easement,” leaving that part of the lawn open. But while it has not been extensively discussed so far, both city reps who testified Monday noted that the negotiations were with the private group Historic Seattle, not with the city, which is not bound by that agreement.

Back on the matter of how big any new homes on the site should be — Conner’s lawyer Hill asked city landmarks coordinator Chave, after her initial testimony, whether a property owner could look at the landmark ordinance and figure out from that how big of a house would be allowed in a case like this. She said no – that’s why the pre-vote process involving the Architectural Review Committee usually involves enough back and forth for an owner to create a proposal that is likely to win approval from the full board.

By the end of Monday’s proceedings (which ran from 9 am to 5 pm), it was clear that more time would be needed than had originally been allotted on the hearing examiner’s schedule for the testimony to be concluded, so in addition to morning testimony beginning at 9 am Thursday, there’s also time set aside 8-11:30 am Friday, and potentially a full day (starting at 9 am) next Tuesday. The proceedings are open to the public for anyone who wants to observe.

8 Replies to "A matter of size: Satterlee House lawn-development dispute"

  • chump change March 11, 2008 (3:01 pm)

    ** William Partin, from a firm that does CPA and “forensic economics” work, said that he feels Conner would get a reasonable rate of return from the land “without any changes to the property” — 6 1/2 percent, he estimated **

    6.5% is an OK return for long term holding of some passive income real estate but WAY too puny for the risks involved in developing a property. Hopefully this aspect is not lost on those making decisions on this.

    Those same decision makers need to tread lightly or the owner *could* just let the lady fall into total disrepair and eventually just topple. The need for a balance her is a heavy burden on those that seem to be in the driver seat.

  • vp March 11, 2008 (3:40 pm)

    Interesting. Thank you for staying all day — too long for those of us who have attended all of the other meetings. One note, the “cottages” you refer to were actually 6 2-story town homes across the lawn from 2 side by side 4-stall garages with condos above. Not what one thinks of when imagining cottages. Once again, Conner was aware of the Landmark status of the property when he bought it and Satterlee was given a tax break on the entire property when he sold it because of its Landmark status. I would guess that Landmark tax break still applies.

  • WSB March 11, 2008 (3:45 pm)

    Thanks for the note on that. Since my media work focused on citywide stuff until WSB, I don’t have the in-depth detailed context on some of the background, but am trying to research through city minutes etc. to bone up. Meantime, I actually received a business card at yesterday’s hearing (I believe they thought I was from another local news organization; however, I was the only reporter there) from someone who said they were involved with the “cottage” proposal, and am planning to contact them.

  • westseattleite March 11, 2008 (4:18 pm)

    He knew what he was buying, I would hope for what he paid. I don’t feel particulary bad for him if he didn’t do all his homework. He also seems resistant to pursuing any other idea but his own.

  • firsttimeposter March 11, 2008 (9:03 pm)

    I wish is would sell to someone else who would turn it in to a restaurant or B&B–some sort of use that would take advantage of the lawn and not try and build on it. Maybe a place for weddings… better yet get thousands of west seattle denizens to contribute some cash, make a nonprofit to buy it, and have it be some sort of town meeting hall / park. Would be a wonderful place for the community to gather, enjoy, and preserve the building.

    22,000 people donating $100 = 2.2 million. Then we’d need annual donations to fix the house up, maintain her, fund the organization, etc. Wonder what the zoning is.. if it would be possible to hold weddings/meetings there. It’s really a fabulous space and I sigh happily every time I walk by.

  • JAFO March 11, 2008 (10:32 pm)

    Two things about this bother me. First, it seems completely idiotic that economic feasibility and receiving a reasonable rate of return is something that can be won with legal action, when instead those parameters should have been determined with a thorough due diligence process (which doesn’t appear to have been done here). Last I checked, investing in real estate wasn’t guaranteed. Maybe they should start adding to the bottom of Real Estate Purchase and Sale agreements the all-too-familiar disclaimer: “Not FDIC Insured. May Lose Value’. Sets an interesting precedent, given the state of the residential market right now… Second, I would guess that a sophisticated buyer, very experienced in real estate development, ready and able to plunk down 900K on spec property would have had some idea of the issues involved and done some research before writing the check, especially since the designation was in place for some time.

  • baba nulu March 12, 2008 (8:14 am)

    Obviously, anyone who claims that “due diligence” can ascertain anything within the “Seattle Process” much less DCLU has never participated in the process. A DCLU permitting specialist likened development in some of West Seattle as “jumping into the blender.” Risk? It is like throwing money into quicksand and diving in after it.

  • helium3 March 20, 2008 (9:50 am)

    Let me see if I understand this. The whole issue here is that this Conner guy refuses to work with the city to come up with a design plan that both sides can agree to? He’s basically trying to push through his plan, regardless of what the normal procedure is, now that’s he’s grown tired of enjoying his tax break?

Sorry, comment time is over.