City council considers easing rules to encourage more backyard cottages

VIDEO: People gathering to sound off on plan to grow number of basement apartments, backyard cottages

Hours before a public hearing on encouraging backyard cottages and in-law apartments, Sarah Swanberg showed Seattle City Councilmember Mike O'Brien the basement apartment she rents out in her Ravenna home.

"It's totally separate, but it's nice to have somebody here," Swanberg told him.

When her family added a second floor, they also built the apartment.

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"We like giving a place for somebody to live," she said.

O'Brien wants to make it easier to build basement apartments and backyard cottages by no longer requiring off-street parking, or by not requiring owners to live on-site.

"I want more people to live in these neighborhoods but I think we can do it in a way that doesn't rock the boat on what the neighborhood looks and feels like," O'Brien said.

O'Brien also wants to block property owners from tearing down small homes and replacing them with big ones.

He would limit a new home on a 5,000 square foot lot to 2,500 square feet above ground.

A 6,000 square foot lot could have a new home no bigger than 3,000 square feet.

Homeowners could get around the limits by adding up to two accessory dwelling units, like a cottage and a basement apartment.

"What I would love to see is instead of a big house housing a couple people, have two or three smaller units that may host a half dozen or even up to a dozen people," O'Brien said.

"How's that going to impact neighborhoods?" asked architect Martin Kaplan of the Queen Anne Community Council.

He predicts O'Brien's plan will bring more large buildings to small lots, split into three units.

"This policy that Mike's advancing is a one-size-fits-all policy," Kaplan said.

Kaplan said the proposal doesn't consider neighborhood lot sizes, street widths or the impacts on infrastructure like sewer lines that would need to serve more people.

"Let's be sensible, lots of that stuff can occur but it's where it occurs and how it impacts your neighbors that I think residents of neighborhoods are concerned about," Kaplan said.

The Queen Anne Community Council lost an appeal of this proposal, but if the legislation passes, Kaplan said they could appeal to another board  or file a citizen initiative to try to overturn it.

The council could pass the legislation this summer.

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