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.