Benchview battle: City approving revised boundaries for three lots

(WSB photo, July 25: Original house at right, under-construction house at left)
The city Department of Planning and Development has just announced that it is approving the revised boundaries for splitting what was once one home’s lot at 55th/Manning (map) into three. “Lot boundary adjustments” are not uncommon, but this one has been under a microscope since early this year, because of a challenge by residents who call their neighborhood Benchview. They appealed the city’s original approval of the lot split and went all the way to King County Superior Court, where they won a partial victory last month. They believed Judge Mariane Spearman‘s decision meant the site’s new owners could only build one new house on the lot. Shortly after the decision, the owners/developers filed documents for revised boundaries, and today, the DPD sent this letter saying those will be approved – read it here (or as a PDF here if you can’t see Scribd embeds):

Benchview decision

Benchview residents had contended the city could choose to “protect the neighborhood” rather than consider the revised boundaries; DPD director Diane Sugimura contended, in both a letter earlier this week and the letter today, that her department was required to review them for consideration. We will be checking with the Benchview neighbors to see if they plan to challenge this new decision.

ADDED 5:17 PM: Benchview spokesperson Dave Allen cc’d us on his reply to the city – an excerpt follows:

This response is incomplete.

On what grounds do you say that the permit was not issued in error, or that 23.76.034 does not apply because the judge remanded the issue back to DPD?

This law makes no mention of anything other than a permit being issued in error.

Once again, the permit was issued in error. That is a fact.

> The judge instructed that “This matter is remanded to DPD for modification OR FURTHER PROCEEDINGS.”< DPD was not required by the judge to revise the permit. If you approve this permit, we will file another (land-use) case. ... We find your issuing of this revision on the eve of a long Labor Day weekend to be incredible. There was absolutely no reason to issue this today. Why the rush? The first and obvious conclusion any rational person would make is that you were hoping the news media will miss this story by breaking this news before the long labor day weekend. Finalizing this decision without a complete response to the nhood would be inappropriate. DPD issued the first permit in January prematurely when the junior planner issued it without the supervisor fully reviewing the issues. You cannot make that same type of mistake again. Finally, slapping the neighborhood in the face with this news right before what should be a restful Labor Day weekend is insensitive at best. Again, why do this this afternoon?

12 Replies to "Benchview battle: City approving revised boundaries for three lots"

  • rational person #42 August 30, 2013 (5:40 pm)

    “The first and obvious conclusion any rational person would make is that you were hoping the news media will miss this story by breaking this news before the long labor day weekend.”
    I think the neighborhood group should consider electing a spokesperson who will refrain from such insults.
    I’m a rational person, and I would never, ever, in my wildest dreams reach such a conclusion. I would conclude that the director believes that the revised boundaries meet the city’s land use codes.

  • Mike August 30, 2013 (7:00 pm)

    This is standard practice by Government offices to use holiday weekends. Mostly because people are expected to be out of town and not contest. Will we need to have another federal investigation into the cities actions?

  • Jm_civik August 30, 2013 (7:33 pm)

    I think Rational Person should check their rationalization skills, and possibly just how far their wildest dreams go.

    It is SOP (that’s Standard Operating Procedure, FYI) for public officials to release bad news on the eve of a long weekend or on a Friday in the hopes nobody notices. Now that everyone knows this, it has more of a Streisand Effect than probably many tend to anticipate.

  • nadoka August 30, 2013 (8:19 pm)

    Welcome to DPD hell.
    I have had more than a few dealings with DPD (CNC, SWDC, as a WS resident and being active with Micro Housing issue, etc).

    DPD, for whatever fiscal, policy, traditions is short of staff, charges developers or landowners for advice/consultation as well as permits, and blows off any challenges by the neighborhoods.

    DPD has rules, procedures, city codes, etc. which are overwhelming complex, contradictory and opaque. The big elephant in the room that can trump any of the above is something called “Directors’ Interpretation’ (my wording my be off, but it’s close enough). This allows the Director to basically override or reinterpreted the code as she sees fit – no appeal or challenge mechanism is easily available. The Benchview saga is a clear illustration of this melange of arbitrary DPD permitting actions, and even more to the point, the lack of due process and clarity of DPD practices.

    Any attempt to ask DPD to make projects that go through their procedures clearly and easily available on the City Web site are pretty much ignored. There is no meaningful notification process to communicate with residents impacted by projects. DPD has no inclination to develop an outreach program to the neighborhoods.

    In many ways, DPD appears to be at the very least arbitrary and capricious and quite possibly corrupt – this is an observation which the residents of Seattle should not have to prove: this is an observation that DPD should have to provide a full and detailed defense of why they are not. The issues of why DPD is so difficult to deal with are complex and have evolved over time. How to force reform on the DPD is something that is outside of the scope of this letter, but needs to be addressed starting now.

  • BW mama August 30, 2013 (9:10 pm)

    Collectively we need to oust the city land use folks. They do not rule in favor of home owners, ever. Just developers.

  • No Surprise August 31, 2013 (8:32 am)

    @ nadoka – Spot on you are.

    One primary candidate for Mayor, I think it was the guy with the bowtie, made the point that if elected he would require all his department Directors to be regularly attendee’s at evening based public forums so that the general public could question their departments operations and processes without having to go downtown in the middle of the work day and testify at a City Council meeting which basically is a joke. Maybe the start of getting DPD reformed is getting whoever is elected Mayor to start doing what bowtie-guy wanted to do?

  • Marie M August 31, 2013 (9:01 am)

    From what I have been told, the DPD is funded by the fees charged to developers. They don’t receive funding from taxpayers. If that is true, it would make sense that their decisions would favor the people who pay them.

  • an_builder August 31, 2013 (11:11 am)

    Well the dpd more or less has to err on the side of development. If they tell you you cannot subdivide your land, they are reducing the lands value significantly and that constitutes a ‘taking’. Unless the dpd is willing to make up the difference, they have violated the takings clause in the Bill of Rights, and they’d rather not endure a lawsuit they might well lose. As for the ‘blame the developers’ routine, who do you think owned the land at one time? A homeowner maybe? Don’t they have the right to profit from their investment? Would you like the dpd to err on the side of your neighbors next time you remodel your house, or build a deck, or make an addition? Every neighborhood has at least one curmudgeon who would halt improvements just do to the noise and all the rough looking men with big trucks who work these projects. I’ve spent a lot of time at the dpd and its actually quite well run, with consistent code enforcement. Try building down south in Burien if you want to see arbitrary code enforcement.

  • Ray August 31, 2013 (11:25 am)

    Can’t say this is a surprise, since the original court finding was made on very narrow grounds. Its almost like the judge was saying that the problem was just that a few words were misspelled in the original filing.

    The larger issue has been ignored…do we as a neighborhood have a right to determine our own neighborhood character?

    Most cities require that zoning changes, building permits etc. must conform to a master use plan. This plan, in turn is usually developed by combining all the neighborhood development plans.

    These neighborhood development plans take into account the local issues…like neighborhood character as well as local environmental concerns (like where the year-around streams are and which streets are dangerous in the winter).

    Seattle is noted for its neighborhoods. I point to Fremont, Ballard, West Seattle, Capital Hill, Green Lake etc. as just a few examples. These areas/neighborhoods were original to Seattle, and reflected development standards of their day which are largely incompatible with todays DPD standards. (Which gives rise to the “non-conforming but legal” classification)

    During the last 10 years a lot of our local neighborhood character has been lost.

    To illustrate my point, look at the loss of neighborhood between the Junction and Morgan Junction. Local blight replaced with 6 and 7 story high rises. Or the loss of the beach cabins along Harbor/Alki. Look at the hue and cry over the 3-story houses springing up in backyards all over.

    Not that DPD is the bad guy here (though I would venture a guess that they are the number one hated department in Seattle).

    DPD has tried to impose a uniform plan for development for the entire city, based on todays development concerns…specifically the encouragement of high rise apartment towers which fit nicely with commuter transit plans and the elimination of parking.

    Which is exactly why we are losing our neighborhood character. We look more and more like any other big city.

    Lacking community oriented development plans we are all at the mercy of undesirable (from the neighborhood point of view) development.

    Too bad the Benchview neighborhood association didn’t attack the new development from the point of view of a non-existent neighborhood development plan.

    I’m betting on the developers unless they get a smarter lawyer.

  • anonyme September 3, 2013 (5:49 pm)

    There needs to be a revision of the way DPD operates and how they are funded, including an investigation of corruption. West Seattle (and many other parts of our city) are being destroyed by ugly, poorly-planned development. It would be interesting to see some figures on how often decisions are made that are not in the developers favor. In the Benchview case, since all else has failed, I truly believe some monkey-wrenching is in order.

    • WSB September 3, 2013 (6:03 pm)

      Well, there was one we covered all the way up to the Court of Appeals that didn’t go in the would-be developer’s favor – it was the case of the Satterlee House in Beach Drive, whose owner wanted to put three homes on its expansive lawn, which are on the books as three separate lots. The city defended the Landmarks Board decision to not allow the homes, and the property owner went as far as the state Supreme Court – which declined to review the case. – TR

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