Photo by Shane Harms
Leroy and Laurette Simmons standing in front of where a row house will soon be less than three feet from their house.

What if you could touch your neighbor’s house through your bedroom window?

A land use application to build a row house at 1730 N.W. 60th Street is in the application process with the Department of Planning and Development.

This sounds like a typical announcement but upon closer inspection of the site plans it’s apparent that the new structure will be built directly on the property line, which upsets neighbor Laurette Simmons.

Leroy and Laurette Simmons and Laurette’s 97-year-old mother live next door to the site that was recently approved for land action. They bought the lot six years ago and built a three-story home.

“Parts of our house lie two and a half feet from the lot line and other parts are more since the rule used to be that structures must have an average setback of five feet. So in some places we would be able to paint the new structure wall from our house! This is just crazy, and I don't think it was the intended result of the DPD,” said Simmons.

However, according to Bryan Stevens, Customer Service Manager and Seattle's Industrial Permit Liaison for the Department of Planning and Development, that is what they have in mind. That is, not to upset Simmons, but to place row houses in that manner.

“A row house development can be placed up to the side property line unless the development proposal is adjacent to a single family zoned property. The “zero lot line” development anticipates the possibility of a future row house on an adjacent site. This is generally a new housing type in Seattle, but one that we encourage and something commonly seen in other major cities,” said Stevens

The current lowrise, multifamily zoning code was enacted in 2010 in areas that have allowed for multifamily development for at least 30 years.

“Lowrise zoning encourages a wide variety of new housing including apartments, townhouses and now row houses. These zones are usually located in between commercial areas and single-family neighborhoods and they play a key role in the production of new housing that can help meet growing demand,” said Stevens.

Stevens said that areas where structures like row housing and townhouses are allowed have not been built because there wasn’t a demand, but that has changed.

“Many of these lowrise zones have remained developed with single family homes, even though they’ve been allowed to build multifamily developments for many years. Given the current construction climate, more of these areas are starting to be redeveloped with a range of building types allowed in the zone.”

Simmons thinks the row house is a bad fit for the context of the property and the neighborhood, which is zoned as multifamily but is largely made up of small single-family homes.

Stevens explained that the context of neighborhoods change and what residents are seeing is the beginning of that change and that even the construction of the Simmons’ home was a change in “built context,” referring to what has already been built.

“There’s the existing built context…based on historic demand and older zoning laws, and then there’s a context based on the type and scale of development currently allowed in the zone and the general vicinity. The existing home to the west (Simmons’) was once a single story house; now it has three stories…which in 2008, was a change in the built context.

The built environment changes overtime, either based on market demands and/or changes to zoning laws. The code is respectful in situations where a more intensive multifamily zone abuts a less intensive single-family zone, but blocks of multifamily zoning surround this site (Simmons)."

Moreover, Stevens explained that since the zone is multifamily it's likely that if a row house development starts there, there is potential more will follow and that’s why they are built to the property line, so that they butt up next to each other. This style of housing is iconic in San Francisco.

“Unless a property is adjacent to a Single Family zoned property, a row-house development can be placed up to the side property line."

The project may satisfy the code, but Simmons thinks that the DPD didn’t review the context of her situation thoughtfully. She said that she bought her property six years ago and tore down the old house in order to build her single family home that she reported to be appraised at $620 thousand dollars.

“To think that more row housing will be built on my lot in the future is ridiculous. It’s a brand new home and at its current value no one in their right mind would buy it in order to tear it down and build a row house. That also goes for the neighboring houses to the west,” said Simmons.

Furthermore, the actual building construction of the row house raises more issues. Simmons said that it’s impossible for the builders to construct the row house without trespassing on her property. If the builders do she said she would call the police. Simmons brought the issue to the attention of the current owner and she said that he told her they would be doing all the building from within the structure. However, a fence along the property line, shrubs and a cedar tree will need to be removed or trimmed dramatically back in order for the build to occur.

Once the row house is built, Simmons claims that the space between the two structures would not allow room for maintenance without being on her property.

“Even after they build it there is no way to paint and maintain the side without coming on my property. We will not only be staring at a wall but eventually unmaintained peeling walls,” said Simmons.

Simmons has also taken steps to claim a one and a half strip of property where her fence lies that extends into the row house site. Simmons has been working with an attorney to enforce the “adverse possession” clause.

The legal action determines that if a fence has been a marker between two properties for longer than 10 years, then where the fence lies determines the property line. The action actually happened to Simmons and she lost property in the past. If the strip is awarded to Simmons, there may need to be changes in the site plan. Or, if the structure is built before the property is awarded to Simmons the row house owner would have problems gaining title insurance.

Bradley Khouri, AIA, Principle and founder of B9 Architects and a member of the Seattle Planning Commission since October 2010, is the architect for the project. The Ballard News-Tribune reached out to Khouri for comment, but he has not responded.

Normally the DPD notifies homeowners about land use application, but Simmons and her neighbors never received anything. The row house project fell into a known “loophole” or flexibility in the code that came after zone changes were made in 2010 that allows higher density structures not to be reviewed when subdivisions occur.

Among other concerns, Simmons said that the City recently stopped picking up waste management cans in the alley behind her house so now cans are rolled out on trash days. She’s concerned that since row house are built abutting the sidewalk there will be no place to put the cans and they will remain on the sidewalk permanently, which is already happening on her block.

"My biggest fear is that because the builders are going to be so close there could be a fire or other safety issues that can happen. My 97-year-old mother would not be able to make it out if there is no one here and something happened,” said Simmons.

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