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Seattle City Council relaxes backyard cottage rules, limits 'McMansions'

Backyard-Cottage-in-Ballard3.jpg
Seattle City Council

After a three-year battle, the Seattle City Council has approved a new law that relaxes the rules for building backyard cottages and basement units, while limiting the size of new homes in single-family zones to curb so-called "McMansions" in the city.

The vote Monday was 8-0, with Council Member Bruce Harrell absent. The council also approved amendments to incentivize bike parking and to study whether to restrictshort-term rentals in these units in the future.

Homeowners have long had the option of building accessory dwelling units on their properties. But the new legislation makes it easier to add detached backyard cottages or attached in-law or basement units.

It eliminates off-street parking requirements, eases restrictions on the size of such units, and eliminates a requirement that the owner live on the property.

City Council member Mike O'Brien first introduced the plan in 2016, with the goal of adding more affordable rental stock in neighborhoods with desirable features.

"These are neighborhoods that often have great schools, great parks, great business districts, whole lots of opportunities, and they're largely off limits to lower-income people who can't afford to rent or own a single-family home," O'Brien said.

The plan was challenged by neigborhood groups who claimed the legislation would dramatically change the look of Seattle's single-family blocks. They won a victory in late 2016 when the city hearing examiner ruled that the legislation needed to undergo a full environmental review.

That review took more than two years to complete, getting the hearing examiner's final approval earlier this spring.

"I don't think someone would come back and visit the city five years later and because of this legislation and say, 'Wow, this is a totally different Seattle,'" O'Brien said.

In addition to making it easier to build these extra units, the legislation also limits the size of new construction in single-family zones.

That provision was one of the recommendations made during the environmental review to reduce the number of homes being torn down. The idea is it could help preserve existing homes in those areas while keeping contstruction of bigger, more expensive "McMansions" at bay.

The legislation is expected to produce about 4,400 units in about 10 years, according to the environmental impact statement. That's about 2,400 more than what would have been produced if the council hadn't changed the rules.

A Seattle native and former knkx intern, Simone Alicea has returned to the Pacific Northwest from covering breaking news at the Chicago Sun-Times. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.