Satterlee House ruling: Owner loses appeal of development denial


ORIGINAL 11:27 AM POST (followed by updates): We’re at the King County Courthouse downtown, where Superior Court Judge Suzanne Barnett has just announced her ruling on Satterlee House owner William Conner‘s appeal of the city’s denial of his proposal to build three houses on its front lawn. The ruling comes a week and a half after both sides presented oral arguments (WSB coverage here), as part of Conner’s court challenge, filed following the city Hearing Examiner‘s affirmation in April of the Landmarks Board decision to say no to this specific development proposal. (Conner needed board approval because the Satterlee House, at 4866 Beach Drive [map] and also known as “The Painted Lady,” is an official city landmark.) Now, the ruling: The judge has affirmed the Hearing Examiner and Landmarks Board decisions against the development proposal. She said she did not agree with any of the reasons made by Conner and lawyer Richard Hill regarding why they felt the decisions were in error. We’ll add more details shortly, and we also will be following up on whether Conner plans to appeal the decision (the next step would be the Court of Appeals); important to note, again, this does not represent a ruling that no development can happen on the site – only that this it was legal for the city to deny this particular proposal for three 3,000-square-foot-average houses (which the judge termed “mini-mansions”) on the home’s front lawn along Beach Drive. 12:40 PM ADDENDUM: We talked to Hill outside the courtroom; he said they would “digest” the ruling before making a decision on whether to challenge it (they have 30 days to do that). 1:19 PM ADDENDUM: Here are details of what Judge Barnett said today in court:

First, take another look at the Satterlee House’s lawn, because it’s at the heart of the ruling:


Judge Barnett reaffirmed what the Hearing Examiner had ruled — that the lawn is unquestionably part of the landmark designation, and therefore that the city did indeed have jurisdiction to review whether the three-house proposal would have adversely affected it.

She noted that in the 11 days since Hill and Barbour had presented arguments in her courtroom, she had “reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, not the least of which were the Hearing Examiner’s extensive opinion.” (here’s the link to that, first uploaded here in April)

She recapped the basic facts of the case – that Conner had bought the site in 2000, about two decades after original owner David Satterlee had sought and received landmark designation, and originally had pursued a development on the front lawn of six so-called “cottages,” which ultimately fell through, before then getting the front lawn subdivided into three lots in 2006 and pursuing the proposal rejected by the Landmarks Board last year.

The judge cited the factors for which it was designated – including “embodying distinctive visual characteristics of an architectural style” and “prominence of spatial location … (with) siting, age, scale as an easily identifiable visual feature of the neighborhood.” And she noted that, since it’s a landmark, its owner needs a Certificate of Approval from the Landmarks Board before making any alterations to the exterior of the house as well as the entire site – quoting the ordinance that designated it as a landmark.

Her reasons for reaffirming that the landmark designation covers the entire site, not just the house as Conner had contended, included not just that terminology, but also historic records of street addresses for the site and the fact the designation referred to it by address, not by simply “the structure,” and referred to it as a specific section of a specific tract.

She largely dismissed an action he had taken in 2006 to amend a “view easement” agreement with Historic Seattle (not a government agency) to specify that the house alone was affected; she noted that while there had been talk in previous proceedings of a 45-foot-wide “view easement,” she had read all the documents covering the easement and the amendment and could not find any particular width specification on record.

For Superior Court to grant relief – rule in favor of the appeal – the person “seeking relief” had to prove at least one of six conditions – including, that the Hearing Examiner did something unlawful or didn’t follow the appropriate process, that the decision was an “erroneous interpretation of the law,” that the decision was not supported by “substantial evidence,” that the decision was outside the examiner’s jurisdiction, or that the decision violated the constitutional rights of the party seeking relief.

Bottom line, she went on to explain, Conner’s challenge did not meet any of those conditions, and she did not agree with any of the arguments Hill had presented on behalf of their appeal (again, here’s the link to our coverage of the oral arguments presented on 10/13/08). To Hill’s contention that the ordinance was too vague because it didn’t offer specifics of exactly what size of home might be acceptable on the property, Judge Barnett noted that board members “had provided very clear guidance to Mr. Conner which he chooses not to hear.” (During the Hearing Examiner proceedings, testimony indicated that Conner and his architects declined to amend their proposal to take into consideration guidance offered by Landmarks Board members in review sessions before their formal vote.)

She added, “It is, as an aside, most unfortunate the ‘cottage’ proposal (from 2000) could not go forward – that was not Mr. Conner’s fault” — he had blamed neighborhood opposition — “but the failure of the cottage proposal and denial of the Certificate of Approval to go forward with this plan is not an error by the Board. … The fact that the cottage proposal couldn’t go forward does not mean the only alternative for this site is the (plan for) three ‘mini-mansions’ in the neighborhood of 3,000 square feet each, in what is by all accounts the front yard of the Satterlee House.”

In dismissing Conner’s final argument, that he had been denied due process, she noted, “He acquired the property with full knowledge of the landmark designation and attendant controls.”

Her ruling concluded, “The court affirms the findings and conclusions of the Hearing Examiner.”

As noted above, this is not necessarily the end of the story; Judge Barnett’s decision can be challenged to the Court of Appeals, and Hill told us they will “digest” the ruling before deciding within the next 30 days. Conner also has the option, at any time, of preparing a different development proposal and starting the process of seeking city approval, since this ruling is not against the concept of developing the three lots into which the lawn has been divided – just against the specific proposal he was pursuing.

Side note, this is not just another land-use case — it was pointed out during the Hearing Examiner proceedings we covered in spring (this WSB archive lineup has links to all of our articles) that the Landmarks Board seldom denies requests for Certificates of Approval, and this was the only such denial in all of 2007 that was appealed to the Hearing Examiner. (Later today, the latest on another West Seattle fight that will go before the examiner in a few days.)

By the way – the Satterlee House remains listed for sale.


15 Replies to "Satterlee House ruling: Owner loses appeal of development denial"

  • B October 24, 2008 (12:38 pm)

    Ha ha! Way to go Suzanne Barnett! Conner needs to get a clue. He has enough land and development going around west Seattle without destroying local landmarks.

  • transplantella October 24, 2008 (12:51 pm)

    And what about the rights of a private property owner??

    Just askin’.

  • mellaw6565 October 24, 2008 (1:55 pm)

    Individual landowners shouldn’t have the right to destroy historical landmarks just because they own it. He clearly bought it with development in mind – not to preserve it.

    Glad he lost.

  • vp October 24, 2008 (2:11 pm)

    She added, “It is, as an aside, most unfortunate the ‘cottage’ proposal (from 2000) could not go forward – that was not Mr. Conner’s fault” — he had blamed neighborhood opposition …

    Misinformation. There was a neighborhood compromise on the “cottage” proposal (actually 6 2-story townhouses and 6 garages with 2 carriage houses above). Conner wouldn’t accept any of the changes to his design requested by the CITY’S design review board and so did not get approval to build. Once again — had feedback, chose to ignore it.

  • sandra October 24, 2008 (2:16 pm)

    I have to agree w/ B and mellaw6565.

  • transplantella October 24, 2008 (2:46 pm)

    So far you are all in agreement that the neighborhood and the government have every right to control what an individual does with his private property?


    I’ve seen this place and think it’s indeed very nice, but why should the owner be obligated to abide by what non-owners think he should do with his own place?

    Just because the neighbors like it the way it is?

  • marianne October 24, 2008 (2:54 pm)

    I may be remembering incorrectly, but wasn’t that property designated as a landmark prior to Conner buying it?

  • charlabob October 24, 2008 (3:03 pm)

    Um, because what he does affects others who do not own his property–their quality of life, their property values. And, since it is a historical area, if not landmark, it also affects the QOL and PVs of the rest of the community. Owning something doesn’t give one 100% control — and should n ot.

  • WSB October 24, 2008 (3:13 pm)

    Marianne – Yes, it was designated in the ’80s. He bought it in 2000.

  • MAS October 24, 2008 (3:22 pm)

    Ordinarily I’d weigh in on property rights, but in this case it’s not the community imposing something on the owner after the fact (which I oppose in most cases.) The owner bought the house with these restrictions already in place, so they get to deal with this legal process. You buy a designated landmark (or whatever it’s status is) and you deal with the consequences. Especially if you are a developer that should know what they are getting into.

    It’s when folks start posting about “we should really be allowed to prevent so-and-so from tearing down (fill in the old building) because it will affect the quality of my life and property values…” when no pre-existing constraints to their proposed actions exist that I have a problem.

  • JLS October 24, 2008 (3:24 pm)

    Transplantella, the property was landmarked BEFORE he purchased it. He purchased it KNOWING that there were restrictions on what he could do to/with the property. These are not new or hidden from him. I have a hard time believing that, as a developer, he did not know/understand what these restrictions entailed.

  • B October 24, 2008 (3:26 pm)

    transplantella – go to one of their design review projects and meet him in person, then see if you feel the same way. They’ll nod, smile, and then just try to do whatever they want. He bought it with full knowledge of what he was getting into, knowing it was a landmark. All he saw was dollar signs.

  • worms Roxanne, I'm afraid of worms. October 24, 2008 (3:34 pm)

    I agree that since it was a hysterical landmark prior to his purchase and that this was fully disclosed, that he should be bound to these regulations.

    I would use the analogy that I knew my property was zoned single family 5000 when I bought it and I realize that I can’t subdivide it and put in multifamily housing. Yes ,these are both examples of the potential use of property being limited by regulation, but there has to be thiks kinds of land use regulation or we would be living in a big Wasilla, Alaska… ;)

  • nimby nulu October 24, 2008 (4:07 pm)

    – since this ruling is not against the concept of developing the three lots into which the lawn has been divided – just against the specific proposal he was pursuing -WSB
    Not a black or white issue as some of these poor analogies. Yes, he bought knowing the historical status. But that very status does allow development even though the neighborhood has opposed any development.

  • w October 26, 2008 (9:16 am)

    It is my understanding that Satterlee requested this “Landmark” designation as a way to lower his property taxes. Conner must have done his home work before he bought this property????
    As a property owner very near The Painted Lady
    I was opposed to the development of the “front
    yard”. The numerous dwellings proposed did not fit the neighborhood. I am all for property owners rights but “buyer be ware”

Sorry, comment time is over.