Could backyard cottages expand from Seattle to the rest of Washington?

Feb 10, 2023, 6:40 PM


(MyNorthwest File Photo)

(MyNorthwest File Photo)

Legislation to support building more accessory dwelling units (ADU) within a property is gaining momentum, as a bill officially passed out of the Senate Committee on Local Government, Land Use & Tribal Affairs this week.

An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) — known more commonly as a backyard cottage — is a secondary house or apartment within the lot of a primary home. This has been implemented within the city of Seattle, and now Senate Bill 5235 wants to expand this project throughout the entire state.

“You’re not necessarily allowed to build an ADU on all properties within our different cities,” Rep. Sharon Shewmake said on The Gee and Ursula Show. “Some of them prohibit them, some of them you can build an attached, but not a detached unit, and we’re trying to legalize them across there.”

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The legislation would require significant plans under the Growth Management Act, according to The Center Square.

“I want to make sure that more people can build ADUs around our state,” Shewmake said. “So we’re saying, first of all, you can have an attached and a detached accessory dwelling unit or a little garden cottage, whatever you want to call it, on those slots within cities and urban growth areas.

“The other thing we’re seeing, I know in Bellingham, we have an owner occupancy restriction which means the owner has to be either in the main unit or the smaller unit. And people have debates about why we need that or why it was put in place,” Shewmake continued. “The thing that bothers me is I don’t think an owner is necessarily a better neighbor. So I don’t think we should be discriminating based on how someone pays to live in their home, whether it’s owning or renting, so we’re getting rid of owner occupancy restrictions as well.”

There are a few exceptions to building a backyard cottage within the bill, including building on environmentally-sensitive lands and on the smallest of lots in the state.

“But generally, it gives people more flexibility,” Shewmake said.

Seattle has allowed attached ADUs since 1994 and detached ADUs in all single-family zones since 2010. Nearly a decade later, in July 2019, former Mayor Jenny Durkan signed legislation to remove regulatory barriers and make it easier for property owners to create ADUs.

As of 2021, there were 2,582 permitted ADUs within the city. The minimum lot size required for a detached ADU is 3,200 square-feet in neighborhood residential zones, while a detached ADU is limited to 1,000 square feet of gross floor area.

Conor Sen, an opinion columnist for Bloomberg, argued the biggest appeal of ADUs is how complementary they fit into a neighborhood.

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“This form of housing avoids some of the “neighborhood character” objections that come into play when developers propose higher-intensity projects like apartment buildings or high-rises,” Sen wrote for The Washington Post.

“So, who says no?” Gee asked during his conversation with Shewmake.

“I think sometimes when we talk about changes in zoning and changes about what’s allowed to be built, people who really deeply love their neighborhoods are just afraid of any sort of change,” Shewmake said. “And look, I love my neighborhood too. But I recognize that cities change with people. [Seattle] needs to grow with our population.”

Listen to Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Could backyard cottages expand from Seattle to the rest of Washington?