By Jeff Switzer / Herald Writer
Cities have attacked them.
Builders have defended them.
Families have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to live in them.
They’re just houses with four walls and a roof. Even so, how they look and fit into Snohomish County’s unincorporated neighborhoods has ignited a debate that has stretched on for more than a year.
The projects are single-family detached homes built on shared lots – a move that allows them to bypass county rules that apply to other housing developments.
This week, the debate might close as the County Council considers stricter rules for the housing.
Proposed rules would mandate open space, landscaping and parking requirements for these projects where today there is none. A public hearing is planned Wednesday afternoon.
As urban land prices in the county have skyrocketed, the projects have become more popular with builders, said Mike Pattison of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.
Builders applied for 118 such projects last year, nearly three times the 40 sought in 2005 and the 32 applied for in 2004.
“They’re one of the few forms of development where we can get the densities we need to make projects profitable,” Pattison said. “Land prices are so high we have to get this sort of density to get your development to pencil out.”
Such developments have been called “air condos” in cases where residents share responsibilities for roads and common spaces. Such projects have been built in low-density multiple residential zones, which led to the debate being dubbed “LDMR.”
Building the homes all on a common property has allowed developers to bypass county rules that would require landscaping, open space and safe walkways if the homes were on separate properties.
The proposed rules would change that, county principle planner Karen Watkins said.
“We’re trying to fill a hole in the code,” Watkins said. “This will make life easier for not only the people that want to do this type of development, but also for the county reviewers.”
City officials have pressed for a countywide moratorium to halt the projects being built near cities.
City officials say they don’t want to annex such projects and formed a coalition spearheaded by Mill Creek and including Lynnwood, Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace, Bothell, Brier, Woodway and Mukilteo.
Instead of calling a time-out for developers, the County Council moved ahead to change the rules. Meanwhile, builders continued to apply for permits.
The proposed rules don’t go far enough to require wide enough streets, enough guest parking spaces or enough open space, Mill Creek Mayor Pro Tem Terry Ryan said.
“The standards the county is proposing are so low that they are unacceptable to the cities,” Ryan said. “For the cities to even consider annexing them, we want the developments to be consistent with the city’s development standards.”
Cities are pressing for twice as much open space per home as the county would require, and more guest parking spaces per home, Ryan said.
Builders are lobbying for exceptions to the parking and open-space rules, Pattison said. Also, they oppose strict design guidelines that might be added by the County Council.
Still, Pattison is optimistic that a compromise will be found.
“There has been a lot of rhetoric and a lot of complaining about these developments, but really, when you boiled it all down, the issues were simple, solvable and reasonable, and people came together to fix it,” Pattison said. “I hope we can put this behind us.”
Ryan and city officials plan to speak at the county hearing and press their case, too.
“We’ll see if the county accepts it or not,” Ryan said.