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Ruling lets Seattle move forward with plans to expand backyard cottages

Seattle continues to weigh a measure easing restrictions on backyard cottages. (Courtesy of Backyard Cottage Blog)

More backyard cottages and mother-in-law apartments could soon be popping up in Seattle.

RELATED: Push for backyard cottages pits city against neighborhoods
RELATED: How backyard cottages could open up Seattle’s housing market

A legal ruling Monday allows Seattle City Council to loosen restrictions on property owners looking to build accessory dwelling units. A hearing examiner determined an environmental review from the city was adequate, dismissing a legal challenge by a neighborhood group.

Steps to open up the city to building more ADUs were last proposed in 2016, and were opposed by the Queen Anne Community Council. The group argued that allowing these units would negatively impact parking and utilities, and undermine the stability of neighborhoods. The community hearing examiner agreed, forcing the city to do additional environmental review before it could move forward.

Now that the hearing examiner has ruled in favor of the city, work by Councilmember Mike O’Brien to expand ADUs in Seattle can begin in earnest.

O’Brien has spearheaded efforts on this front in Seattle for years now. The verdict in this latest ruling will next move legislation from O’Brien forward into planning stages.

His proposed bill would allow for a handful of new standards for anyone looking to add a backyard cottage to their property. That includes:

  • Removing a requirement for property owners to live on any property with an ADU
  • Permitting two ADUs on a single lot
  • Removing a requirement for off-street parking
  • Allowing ADUs on smaller lots

That all kicks off on May 29, when the council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee — chaired by O’Brien — is briefed on the legislation at a special meeting. A vote on amendments as well as the proposed legislation is currently set for June 18.

Many have heralded backyard cottages as a possible solution to Seattle’s housing crisis, labeling O’Brien’s plan as integral to creating more places to live in a city in short supply of affordable options.

“Seattle faces an affordability and housing crisis, and we are acting to increase the supply of housing options as quickly as possible,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a Monday news release. “We need to use every tool in our toolbox to boost the supply of housing – and that includes knocking down barriers for homeowners to build more backyard cottages and in-law units.”

An October report from The Seattle Times estimated that O’Brien’s proposal would add roughly 2,500 ADUs over the next decade, and prevent 500 houses from being torn down to build “McMansions.”


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