Followup: Satterlee House ruling draws national attention


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.

As testimony and exhibits reaffirmed in this case (here’s our archived coverage), that was disclosed to William Conner before he bought the property in 2000.

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.

The California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, which focuses on property-rights advocacy, has also published its reaction (see it 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.

19 Replies to "Followup: Satterlee House ruling draws national attention"

  • CB December 27, 2009 (10:57 pm)

    Insane. What kills me is this has nothing to do with the house itself, but the property surrounding it. The Landmark Preservation Board has far too much power. It makes you wonder what’s next?

    Best of luck to you Mr. Connor. You will win in the end because at some point a rational judge is going to see the insanity of this.

  • Herman December 28, 2009 (12:40 am)

    It does not make me wonder what’s next. The Landmarks Board is operating well within usual and established standards for historic preservation. You are merely ignorant, an ignorance that people like you and Conner strive to uphold.
    In this case the land is an essential part of the historic context of the property. At one time, homes on Beach Drive featured gracious victorians with long front lawns. They are all gone, except for this one.
    Concealing the structure behind a phalanx of McMansions does not convey the history of the property.
    Conner should drop this ego-fest, price his property at its market value instead of the inflated (and legally motivated) phony price, and let people and institutions with an interest in historic preservation buy the home for him.
    He is working hard to destroy an important, voluntarily protected, historic artifact just to make a point. (That the city cannot stand in the way of Mr. Conner’s will)

  • w December 28, 2009 (12:55 am)

    It is my understanding that Satterlee obtained
    historical status for tax relief(controls and incentives) Satterlee knew what he was doing. I live close by and the type of development that Connor wants to put on the front lawn DOES NOT FIT the neighborhood.The neighborhood is single family, not multi-cottage.As Gordon said come back with a new proposal that will fit. It boils down to money and what he needs to make on the development of the property.I’m sure “a” single family home would pass with flying colors, but three??? Speculators in Real estate need to be careful, many have been stung during this downturn. Did Mr. Connor “buy” this property with the idea of developing the front lawn? I believe he did. Maybe he should have researched his development plans BEFORE he purchased the Painted Lady.If he can sell it for 2.2 he will have made his money. I don’t know, the property has been for sale for a LONG TIME….

  • Patrick December 28, 2009 (8:51 am)

    Let’s be clear: the rules didn’t change and the landmarks board is not over-reaching its authority. In fact, it is upholding its mission. Mr. Conner is trying to change – flout really – the rules he voluntarily purchased the property under. My understanding is that the board isn’t even against his building 3 smaller houses (that meld with the original house) there. They are just against 3 large modern houses that would obscure the view of the main house – and in the process, completely change the character of the property. Mr. Conner is simply greedy. He’s now spent a lot of money trying to flout the rules. And now he wants to make the community pay. I only wish someone who hit it big in high tech would buy the property, restore it, and turn the front lawn into a community garden. Wouldn’t that be wondeful??

  • dawsonct December 28, 2009 (8:57 am)

    Just another fine example of the arrogance of money. I guess laws, regulations, and community are, like taxes, for the little people.
    You lost to the hoi-polloi this time, Conner, sell the place to someone who values the property for what it IS and go find another property to exploit.

  • dawsonct December 28, 2009 (9:14 am)

    I’m still waiting for an honest answer from these “property rights” activists about how they would feel if I were their neighbor and decided to pursue my metallurgy hobby and open a smelter next to their home.

    My interpretation of their position is that they, nor the government we share, has a right to tell me what to do on my property. I feel that they are wrong.

    When your house is on fire, do you people turn away the “socialist” fire dept? How about the “socialist” police? When you flush your toilet do your turds vanish into thin air? When you turn on your faucet, does it produce water through magic?

    I’m certain you people have NO problem taking whatever you can from the public commons, time to accept responsibility for your role on our society.

  • Dano December 28, 2009 (9:56 am)

    Wow…. It surprises me how mean spirited you people can be. I don’t even know the guy, but seriously… re-read your comments.

  • on board December 28, 2009 (11:33 am)

    Yes, the comments here are particularly mean spirited.

    My understanding of this issue is that earlier on, either this owner or the previous one wanted to use the property for special events. This would be a popular location for weddings for example. In standard Seattle (and particularly Alki) fashion the story goes that the NIMBY neighbors would hear nothing of it. This is sad since that would be probably the only viable use for this property that retains the characteristics that led this to historic designation in the first place.
    If the neighborhood won’t let this be used in a viable way, they should stop complaining now that the owner is trying to do something different.
    The reality is that there isn’t a demand for this property as housing the way it exists today.

    WSB, have you stumbled on any part of this story going back that indicates what efforts were made to use the property for appropriate special events?

  • WSB December 28, 2009 (12:35 pm)

    The only suggestions of that idea that come up in our archives from the past few years are in comment discussions. I was the only reporter at the Hearing Examiner sessions which were the most extensive proceedings in this two-year-so-far process, and I don’t *recall* testimony along those lines. This was my writeup from the day the previous owner (David Satterlee) testified:
    Doesn’t mean it didn’t come up in the early 2000s, but any mention back then isn’t archived on the big open Web. I wonder though if there might be confusion with the mention of that idea for another historic West Seattle property (and neighbor opposition in that area) in this story from a couple years ago:

  • Justice Holmes December 28, 2009 (1:51 pm)

    What it really boils down to is the meaning of the word historic?

    Historic, as used here on this property, really isn’t historic unless your into short term history lessons, kinda like lost in dawson creek, b.c.

    Like that real Historic Court wrote clearly about,

    Or was it Justice Marshall, that coulden’t confuse Justice Holmes…

    “the public interest doctrine, merely a fiction intended to beautify what is disagreeable to the sufferer…”

    Still trying to figure out that Navagation Code in the “public trust doctrine” from Justinian Dawson, lost in B.C?

    Like the Penn Central Case from the Supreme Court and the preservation upheld, it can’t apply to a private property, where the public interest never applied.

    Was it too confusing, for President Lincoln’s first volunteers from Harvard Law School, who never finished college, and never graduated from Harvard, but got to shoot democrats betwen the eyes, love that Grand Old Party!

  • Diane December 28, 2009 (2:01 pm)

    so Conner raised his asking price from $995,000 in Jan 2007 to $2.2 million, and holding???

    • WSB December 28, 2009 (2:03 pm)

      The property has been up for sale in a couple of ways – both with the house/land separated, and together. I believe the $995K was from the former, which is not mentioned in the current listing (though it certainly could be a different listing, I haven’t crossreferenced MLS) …

  • Brian December 28, 2009 (3:28 pm)

    Dano – I have met him and I’m not a fan. All he sees is dollar signs in this project. Calling a a 3,000 sqft house a “cottage” is misrepresentative. I’m glad the court stuck to their guns.

  • golflover December 28, 2009 (4:15 pm)

    My post saying that’s a nice green to practice my chip shot was deleted wow!!

  • Dano December 29, 2009 (12:28 am)

    …Believe me Brian, I understand that folks are pleased with the court’s decision. I would probably fall into that camp as well…. Seriously, I have no idea who this Conner guy is…. I am just surprised at how some people use words or phrases in this forum that are clearly mean and meant to be a bit of a “stab” in the guy’s back. I just wonder if people would behave this way in person, or if it is easier to say degrading things while enjoying the anonymity that this blog provides. Just a thought….

  • vp December 29, 2009 (11:54 am)

    Regarding the special events. Never an issue here. That possibility was suggested by the neighbors and supported, but not considered by the owners. The neighbors also worked with Conner’s representatives and the City’s Design Review Board on the original plans for townhouses in the front yard. The developers would not revise their design as requested by the Design Review Board and accepted by the neighbors. Because Conner wouldn’t accept a compromise plan the project didn’t get permitted. It was their way or not at all. This is also the process that was followed with the Landmarks Board. The board made suggestions for 2 years as to how the project could move forward and none of the suggestions were acted upon.

  • Living in West Seattle Since 1985 December 29, 2009 (4:11 pm)

    I have always thought that house was wonderful! Its sad there are not more of those 100 year old gems in West Seattle. There are many near Volunteer Park, on the north side of Capital Hill. I am afraid this entire fluff over the Saterlee House is just about money. Like everyone else, the home owner wants the most he can get out of his investment. That is not a crime. Its sad that sub-dividing the huge lot or making a bunch of “Cottages” would compromise the feel of the estate. I doubt any historical society would agree to what he wants, but what he wants would be totally normal on a non- historical property. In fact, Seattle encourages property owners to make our city have more urban density. The home owner is probably going to need to just sell the House & Land as is. Unfortunately, this situation is just one of those things that does not have a satisfactory compromise for all parties involved. Hopefully the new owner will embrace Saterlee’s historical status and its irreplaceable value to our community.

  • Been here a long time December 29, 2009 (6:52 pm)

    From your quote…..
    “Was it too confusing, for President Lincoln’s first volunteers from Harvard Law School, who never finished college, and never graduated from Harvard, but got to shoot democrats betwen the eyes, love that Grand Old Party!” ??????

    justice holmes? What in the world does that mean????
    How does that apply to the current planning codes???

  • West Seatle neighbor December 29, 2009 (10:37 pm)

    I moved to Seattle in 1991, when I first got here a friend took me on a little tour of West Seattle and as we drove down Beach Dr and I first saw this house, I absolutley fell in love it. It is such a great old house. I always saw the proposed land use sign in the front yard, but was always in a car driving past and never stopped to read it. I had no idea that someone wants to put a home/homes in that magnificent front lawn. That would so ruin its charm. Its beautiful. I’m sad to read this news. I take a drive down near there every chance I get, so I can see that house. With I had the $$$ to purchase it. I would keep it just as it is.

Sorry, comment time is over.