Satterlee House development fight: Afternoon testimony


The city Landmarks Preservation Board lawyers have called all their witnesses, and now the lawyer for Satterlee House (aka Beach Drive’s “Painted Lady”) owner William Conner is calling his, with testimony continuing before city Hearing Examiner Sue Tanner at 8 am tomorrow and 12:30 pm Tuesday. It’s already gone on for 2 1/2 days (coverage links: testimony from the house’s previous owner/namesake David Satterlee here; first full day, last Monday, wrapup here; this morning’s testimony here) and is attracting a fair level of attention in the historic-preservation and legal communities, since disputes over development involving official city landmarks almost never get to this stage (an appeal argued before the Hearing Examiner). Here’s what happened this afternoon:

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The hearing room on the 40th floor of the city Municipal Tower downtown isn’t really a courtroom, but proceedings are conducted just like court — witnesses get sworn in, they testify, they get cross-examined, lawyers bark OBJECTION! and Tanner responds “sustained” or “overruled.” And if you think “paperwork” when you think “legal,” this case wouldn’t disappoint you — both sides are armed with a massive sheaf of paperwork that is kept in the biggest binders you’ve ever seen — and keeping track of it has almost become sport during the proceedings, with such confusing declarations as “So Tab 14 is Exhibit 15?” happening multiple times hourly.

This afternoon’s proceedings began with property owner Conner’s lawyer Richard Hill (a specialist in land-use law) cross-examining Landmarks Board member Thomas Veith, using a question he’d asked an earlier witness — could a property owner look at the landmark ordinance and know how large a building would be allowed on his/her site?

Veith’s answer, like the earlier witness, was “no” — that’s what the Architecture Review Committee process, before full Landmarks Board votes, is for. He elaborated, “I’m trying to guide them (applicants, at the ARC) on how to — not damage the integrity of the existing landmark. One way to look at this project is to treat (the potential new houses) as if they are subservient structures, like an estate where you would find a carriage house or gatehouse – not to say that’s the only way to do it, but with an estate of this character, that seemed to be the quickest way to get to something that was going to work.”

One point made earlier during the city’s case did come up for dispute, the matter of whether the potential homes built on part of the Satterlee House’s front lawn — which has been subdivided into three lots (for the record; you can’t tell now by looking at the site, since no development has happened yet) — should be built in a style similar to the historic house itself, or different from it. The city had suggested that the “modern” style proposed for the new homes on the Satterlee House lawn might be inappropriate; notes taken from ARC meetings by the project’s architect (from Baylis) quoted Veith as having said last September, “The modern style is fine and probably appropriate.”

After Veith, another Landmarks Board member was called as a witness for the city — but Marie Strong, who joined the board after the vote against Conner’s proposal, was not testifying as a board member, but rather as a real-estate agent specializing in what she called “homes with history.” (Right now, in fact, she is the listing agent for Seaview Hall, a recently renovated century-old West Seattle home at 4004 59th; read its background here.)

Strong said the city asked her to review the marketing of the Satterlee House and land. She noted that it’s been on the market for 28 months (and acknowledged her listing of Seaview Hall has passed a year, as well): “I found the property had been listed six times in a rather, to the real-estate community, confusing presentation of various options – vacant land, sometimes the house and land. Comments have been made to me about ‘what’s going on down there?’ Looking at the history of the listing, the real-estate community has not understood what was going on (with it).”

She talked about a visit to the Satterlee House last month, and a review of the Comparative Marketing Analysis done by the agent who has had the listing for the past 10 months. She talked about most houses in that price range being in better condition (as we reported from yesterday’s testimony, witnesses said the Satterlee House needs major work, especially to its foundation). She also noted that while the home’s interior needs a lot of work too, the landmark ordinance restricting its development was not standing in the way of any of that work getting done, since it involves the exterior of the house and its site, not the interior. She briefly discussed West Seattle’s other landmark “Painted Lady,” the Hainsworth House in Admiral, which sold for $1.3 million in 2005 and $1.49 million in 2007, after about 8 months on the market. She said there’s still a decent market for old houses in the million-dollar-plus price range in West Seattle, noting that 7 such properties sold in 2006, 14 in 2007, and 9 are on the market now.

She finished testifying at 2:30 pm, and that was the end of the city’s witness list. Hill called his first witness on behalf of Conner, Susan Busch from Baylis, the architect on the disputed proposal for three 3,000-square-foot-average homes on the north side of the Satterlee House lawn.

Busch talked about her original dealings with Conner: “The goal was to design homes that met Mr. Conner’s requirement for high-quality homes that take advantage of the viewers, targeting a fairly sophisticated buyer who would enjoy living next to the historically designated home.”

She showed drawings from the proposal, including a driveway for the westernmost home that connected it directly to Beach Drive, and a driveway for the other two that cut across the lawn space to run between them; the garages would be behind the houses, facing the property to the north. She said the homes were designed to smaller footprints, lower height (24 feet), and bigger setbacks than could have been allowed under code.

Busch also acknowledged that during the back-and-forth with the Architecture Review Committee, the plans were not revised to meet the members’ suggestion for a smaller size: “We knew the houses were recommended to be made smaller, but we knew that for Mr. Conner’s requirements, that wasn’t possible. So we tried to break up the massing so they weren’t boxes.”

While cross-examining her, city lawyer Judy Barbour asked for more elaboration on whether the architects had talked with Conner about possibly reducing the size of the proposed houses. “He felt we were building an appropriately sized home, and that we should stick with the initial program. To meet his needs and fit everything in, we kept everything the same.”

Before Busch left the witness seat, Barbour asked about geotechnical conditions at the site, at which time Busch talked more about the fill that was previously mentioned: “The site where these houses are to be built has been filled, with material including huge chunks of concrete, not just your standard dirt. We also would expect groundwater to be fairly high.” She said that was one reason why the possibility of adding living space to the homes through basements was not explored.

The second witness called by Conner’s lawyer, and final witness of the day, was John Chaney, who until just a few months ago ran Historic Seattle. That group figures into this case because of a “view easement” negotiated when Satterlee was selling the house to Conner; a deal was signed with Historic Seattle “in perpetuity” protecting a view of the house from Beach Drive. Historic Seattle is a private organization, however, and the city is not bound by the agreement, it’s been noted in testimony already.

Chaney explained that Satterlee approached Historic Seattle about possibly buying the house, after he had had it on the market for a while. The group decided against doing that, but approached the city Parks Department to see if it might be interested, which it apparently was not. So then the quest to sell it to a private buyer ensued, and at some point Conner came into the picture.

The original development proposal for the lawn involved what was at the time a trial city program involving “cottages” to be built on sites like this. Chaney testified that Historic Seattle reviewed the proposal for “cottages” (not as small as you would think, given the plans we have seen) to be built on the site, and thought it a reasonable proposal.

Chaney also said Historic Seattle reviewed the Conner proposal that is at the heart of this dispute and thought it appropriately protected the view easement, so it had no objection to the proposal for three 3,000-square-foot-average homes.

One of the key points in the city’s contention that those homes were too big is part of the rulebook affecting development on landmark sites like this, specifically federal rules. Chaney testified that his interpretation of those particular rules, regarding the larger site of the Satterlee House, did not lead him to note any specific landscape figures worth preserving, except perhaps the pond right in front of the house. (In other words, with the front lawn being largely just a big open lawn, he didn’t consider it to be significant in and of itself.) He also talked about the character of the neighborhood, which originally had many homes like this set back at the end of huge lots, but doesn’t any more, and therefore said he thought the Conner development proposal was “compatible” with the neighborhood.

Under cross-examination, Barbour asked if it wasn’t perhaps exactly that – the fact this site is almost the last of its kind — that made it landmark-worthy. She also challenged his testimony that it was preferable to have the open space — a 40-plus-foot-wide stretch of lawn remaining from Beach Drive up to the house — on the south side of the property; he had said that since the sidewalk and street on the south side are closer to the house itself than on the north side, given the lot’s shape, he thought that to be optimal for the view easement.

Tomorrow’s witnesses are expected to include at least one financial expert on Conner’s behalf — since the central question here is whether the Landmarks Board’s disputed ruling is denying him “reasonable economic use” of the property — and Conner himself. As we mentioned in the first report today, the Hearing Examiner says a ruling is not likely until mid-April; any challenge to it would have to come in the form of a lawsuit, as the ruling would represent the city’s official final say.

2 Replies to "Satterlee House development fight: Afternoon testimony"

  • beachdrivegirl March 14, 2008 (10:20 am)

    Woudl the Landmark Board be against the property being used as a businss such as a site for weddings, a bed and breakfast, or both?

  • liws March 14, 2008 (2:28 pm)

    The lawn looks greener than a golf course.

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