Tiny lots, big frustration

  • By Jackson Holtz and Jeff Switzer / Herald Writers
  • Tuesday, December 19, 2006 9:00pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

New Snohomish County rules are being drafted to fix what some people are calling dangerous, dense and ugly neighborhoods.

In January, county officials plan to unveil design standards for so-called “air condos.” They are mostly single-family homes in developments where a homeowners association maintains roads and other public areas instead of the government.

Builders are cutting corners in these developments, critics say.

They maintain that the private roads are too narrow for firefighting equipment, the subdivisions lack sidewalks and parking, there’s not enough space between homes, and the developments are built without aesthetic considerations such as trees.

“Some of that stuff is going to be ugly and unlivable,” Lake Stevens City Councilwoman Heather Coleman said.

Coleman and city officials from around the county have urged the county to address the issue or ban the developments outright.

Cities worry that if the county approves the developments in their urban growth areas, the cities will be left to manage their legacy: dangerous neighborhoods where owners don’t understand that they – not government – are responsible for roads and sidewalks.

And the neighborhoods aren’t safe for residents or fire crews, fire officials said.

Critics are citing only a few examples of what the industry calls LDMR – low-density multiple residential, said Mike Pattison, a spokesman for the Master Builders Association of Snohomish County.

“On the whole, these are quality developments and one of only a few affordable housing options left,” he said. “The industry is stepping up to the plate and addressing concerns about guest parking, aesthetic issues and more.”

Since 2004, the county has approved 136 of the developments with hundreds of single-family homes. In 2004 and 2005, the county allowed 72 projects to move forward. The pace increased in 2006, with the county approving 64 projects by June.

The highest concentration of projects is in the south part of the county, where some projects are as dense as 30 lots on less than 5 acres.

This type of development is a countywide problem, critics say.

County Councilman Dave Gossett, who has introduced a design change ordinance, said even one bad neighborhood is too many.

“Even if it’s only one – which it isn’t, because I’m hearing from a number of people on it – that still is a problem for people who live near it and who live in it,” he said.

Cities raised the volume on their concerns this fall through Snohomish County Tomorrow, a regional planning and development group made up of city and county officials.

Calls were made to put a ban on any new air condo development, Mill Creek City Councilman Terry Ryan said.

That pressure sped up the debate at the county level, said Craig Ladiser, the county’s director of planning and development services.

In January, county officials will consider a pair of proposals to fix perceived problems with the projects: one introduced by Gossett, the other drafted by the county’s planning staff.

The changes are necessary to keep people safe, District 1 Deputy Fire Chief Steve Sherman said.

Fire officials have worried about the compact developments for more than a year, he said.

Some houses and fences are so close together that there isn’t enough space for rescue ladders to safely reach bedrooms, Sherman said. He’s also concerned about the narrow roads and parking problems.

“We need to be able to get to our emergencies,” Sherman said. “We have had difficulty getting through developments” during inspections. “We have had to call the county to have illegally parked cars removed from developments.”

The developments meet the county fire code, but the code doesn’t go far enough to help firefighters do their jobs, Sherman said.

The county has been without a full-time fire marshal for several years. Ladiser has been managing those responsibilities.

“Not having a fire marshal has probably delayed our sensitivity,” Ladiser said. “With an advocate, we probably would have understood the problem much quicker.”

The fixes might be as simple as putting upstairs windows in the front and back of new homes where fire ladders can reach them, Ladiser said. Narrow fire lane roads might have “No Parking” signs posted.

Those are changes developers said they are willing to make, he said.

Making sure somebody follows through on the safety improvements is the next task, Ladiser said.

That still leaves a problem, Sherman said.

“I’m still concerned about what you do with the ones that are currently under way,” Sherman said. “I haven’t heard any answer for that.”

Some cities have asked the county to halt approvals of the housing projects until new rules are in place.

That’s not likely to happen.

County Councilman Gary Nelson said the word “moratorium” isn’t in his dictionary because property owners still have to pay taxes even though they can’t use their land.

Gossett said moratoriums are “blunt instruments” that can cause problems for property owners.

There’s another, more practical problem with trying to get the County Council to pass a ban.

“There aren’t three votes up here,” Gossett said.

Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or jholtz@heraldnet.com.

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