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New push for backyard cottages pits city against neighborhood groups

(Courtesy of Backyard Cottage Blog)

Building a backyard cottage is legal, but current regulations make doing so almost as expensive as building an actual cottage. For years, the city’s attempts to ease the process for building so-called accessory dwelling units (ADUs) have been thwarted by homeowner groups concerned about the greater impact on neighborhoods.

“The proposal is basically going to fix the regulations that have been getting in the way and making it difficult to build these things in their backyards or add them to their houses,” Dan Bertolet from the Sightline Institute told Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross.

Such changes were last proposed by the city in 2016 and opposed by the Queen Anne Community Council, arguing that allowing these units will negatively impact parking and utilities, and undermine the stability of the neighborhood. The community hearing examiner agreed, forcing the city to do additional environmental review before it can move forward. Now that they have, another appeal may be in the works.

RELATED: How backyard cottages could open up Seattle’s housing market

The city is looking to simplify and streamline the process for homeowners to build ADUs on their properties, known colloquially as backyard cottages or in-law units.

Homeowners would then be able to rent these units out, providing an additional source of income that could then be put toward anything from day-to-day living to mortgage payments. Alternatively, it also opens up more housing options for renters.

“The culprit in delaying these rules changes is the state’s environmental policy act,” Bertolet said. “People who want to oppose new housing projects or rules changes like these can sort of hijack the state environmental rules to create all kinds of delays. The city council has no control over these state laws.”

New regulations are looser in nature and would not require off-street parking, allow ADU construction on smaller lots, and would not require the homeowner to live on-site. The city also released its updated environmental review, which reached the same conclusions as the last one. It argues that that such housing will have little negative impact on neighborhoods, with regards to parking, utilities, and aesthetics.

Are environmental rules being abused by those opposed to backyard cottages?

Bertolet believes the environmental rules are being abused by neighborhood groups, and that it’s necessary to update them in order to move ADUs forward.

“These rules were originally set up to deal with things like if somebody wanted to put a nuclear waste dump in a neighborhood. It’s as if these anti-housing activists are treating homes as radioactive waste,” he said.

“They’re co-opting these laws to stop housing. But these laws are also used for legit purposes. So the problem is how to update the state laws so they don’t keep impeding home building, yet still offer protection from the things that we really do need protection from.”

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