By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
This week’s state Appeals Court ruling does not necessarily end the two-year fight over a three-house development proposal for the lawn of the city-landmark Satterlee House at 4866 Beach Drive (map). Owner William Conner can request a discretionary review by the state Supreme Court. His lawyer, Richard Hill, told WSB after the decision was announced (WSB coverage here), “We will be studying the Court’s ruling, and Mr. Conner will then decide whether or not to appeal.” In the meantime, the ruling (read it here) has drawn national attention: It could have nationwide significance, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Pacific Legal Foundation, which both had filed “friend of the court” briefs in the case, NTHP supporting the city, PLF supporting the property owner. More ahead:
To recap: The century-old Satterlee House has been a city landmark since 1983. In the course of this case, rulings have affirmed that the designation included its site, not just the house.
Its then-owner sought the designation, which brings with it “controls and incentives,” property-specific, including the fact that any proposal to change the landmarked property must be approved by the city Landmark Preservation Board.
A subsequent proposal for development of “cottages” on the front lawn as part of a city demonstration program went only partway through the approval process; the program expired and the application was canceled in 2006, the same year Conner put the property up for sale. In 2007, after getting approval to divide the front lawn into three separate lots, he proposed three houses for them. After several months of back-and-forth in which the Landmarks Board’s Architectural Review Committee repeatedly expressed concerns about the size and scale of the proposed houses (each approximately 3,000 square feet), the board itself voted in December 2007 to reject the plan.
Conner appealed the rejection to the city Hearing Examiner, who presided over a six-session hearing we covered in March 2008, then affirmed the board’s decision in April 2008. The owner then appealed that ruling in King County Superior Court, which also upheld it (in October 2008), and followed that up by taking it to the state’s 1st District Court of Appeals, where the case was argued in June, with the ruling issued last Monday.
All along, the city has contended that it is not trying to block any and all development on the site, reiterated Karen Gordon, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer, when we asked for her comment on the ruling: She stressed that, as has been noted throughout the case, this is not a decision against any development on the Satterlee House lawn, and that the door remains open to Conner to bring in a new proposal: “Certainly we are gratified with a decision that clearly upholds the ordinance on the issues that the appellant called into question, but the bigger issue for us is trying to find a solution that works on that site, and I really believe that the board has been quite sincere in trying to work with the owners to meet their objectives – there’s no reason why we can’t continue to do that. This clarifies and reaffirms our role.”
The owner could have brought in a new proposal at any time after the rejection of the previous one, even as this legal process continued, but has not, Gordon said: “Certainly from our perspective, we prefer to problem-solve rather than spend the time in court, and that offer is still on the table for these applicants as well.”
On the national level, the preservation advocates at the NTHP saw the most significance in the ruling’s rejection of Conner’s contention that the rules for what could be done to his property were too vague. “The decision … reaffirms the constitutional validity of historic preservation ordinances overall – including both the process and standards used to evaluate applications to make changes to historic properties,” NTHP’s special counsel Julia Miller told WSB. She says the National Trust keeps a list of decisions in “vagueness challenges,” and this is the 43rd decision to uphold preservation ordinances against those challenges, with the list now containing decisions from 24 states and the District of Columbia.
She added that an Illinois decision went in favor of a “vagueness challenge,” but preservation advocates are heartened by the ruling in our state: “The decision is important because it rejects the notion raised by the highly publicized decision from Illinois, Hanna v. City of Chicago, that seemingly ‘open-ended’ standards in historic preservation ordinances are unconstitutionally vague. (In Hanna, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that the standards used by the City of Chicago to designate landmarks and historic districts are unconstitutionally vague.) Consistent with the vast majority of courts on this issue, the Washington court recognized that these standards are objective and contextual, meaning that they ‘gain specificity from application to a particular landmark and a particular proposal’.”
What those watching the West Seattle case may not realize is that the standards used by the city are not unique, and Miller made note of that: “The standards used by (Seattle’s) Landmarks Preservation Board to evaluate applications – the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation– are used by many preservation boards throughout the U.S. The court’s recognition that these standards are fully constitutional is obviously important. If the court had
followed Hanna’s rationale, then cities would be scrambling.”
To read more on the Historic Trust’s view of the Satterlee House ruling, go here.
Brian T. Hodges wrote for the PLF Liberty Blog that the decision “should send a shiver down our collective spines” and concluded, “What is particularly worrisome about this decision is there is no limit to the circumstances where this analysis can be applied, essentially substituting due process with post-hoc rationale.” According to the organization’s website, Hodges is a lawyer with the PLF’s Northwest Center in Bellevue.
Meantime, the Satterlee House remains listed for sale, at $2.2 million, according to the official listing website. (That’s the same price for which it was listed when we reported the Hearing Examiner‘s decision in April 2008.) And we will continue checking back with its owner’s lawyer regarding the pending decision on whether to challenge the most recent ruling.