Developers say a now-removed restriction had the unintended consequence of creating “no man’s lands” of unused space along the edges of newly built neighborhoods. (Merle Ash)

Developers say a now-removed restriction had the unintended consequence of creating “no man’s lands” of unused space along the edges of newly built neighborhoods. (Merle Ash)

County allows developers to grade up to property lines

Developers supported the change, but opponents said it could put neighboring properties at risk.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council voted Wednesday to get rid of a rule that prevented developers from grading with 2 feet of a property line.

Developers said the restriction had the unintended consequence of creating “no man’s lands” of unused space along the edges of newly built neighborhoods, but some homeowners believe it puts their land at greater risk.

“This 2-foot rule effectively does not let people use the property they own and pay taxes on,” said Lynn Eshleman, a developer who has long been active in south Snohomish County.

The County Council voted 4-1 to allow grading and clearing up to the property line. Councilwoman Stephanie Wright voted in opposition.

At the hearing, Eshleman and others contended that the 2- to 4-foot spaces left along property lines —often closed off by fences or retaining walls— become magnets for trash, rodents and squatters. They also prevent a landowner from developing a property to its full potential, adding extra costs and decreasing housing densities.

Many in the audience disagreed.

Eric Adman, president of the environmental group the Sno-King Watershed Council, countered that the change was motivated by profit, not any greater good.

“I believe this is primarily a developer-sponsored ordinance to allow more houses per lot, which is going to have the net effect of making more money for the developers, but I do not believe it will increase the goals of creating more affordable housing and I believe it will have some adverse effects,” Adman said.

Some of those effects, he said, include damaging the root structure of trees on adjacent properties and forcing neighbors to allow workers to trespass on their property for construction and maintenance.

Nearly two dozen people spoke at the hearing. Many live next to the controversial Frognal Estates subdivision in the Picnic Point area southeast of Mukilteo, where a developer recently clear-cut woods after winning a series of court challenges.

The rule change was recommended by the county Planning Commission. Some opponents who spoke Wednesday criticized Planning Commissioner Merle Ash of Arlington for not recusing himself from those deliberations. A consultant, Ash has played a lead role shepherding the Frognal project through the county’s land-use approval process. Ash spoke at the hearing to defend himself.

The new grading rule applies across all unincorporated areas. County Executive Dave Somers’ administration endorsed it.

Before the change, a developer could grade up to the edge of the site, only if the neighboring landowner granted permission. That was often hard to obtain. Now, it’s no longer needed.

Neighbors still have protections for steep slopes and significant trees on their property. Opponents, however, said those safeguards are weak.

Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, said the 2-foot buffer was adopted a decade ago, during the recession. Its negative impacts weren’t immediately obvious during the lull in housing starts. Pattison said neighbors still have the ability to challenge proposed grading activities.

The new ordinance adds a requirement for construction plans to be stamped by a licensed engineer when they include earth-moving within 2 feet of a project’s boundary line.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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