CAST architecture recently participated in a Seattle City Council discussion regarding backyard cottages. The meeting began with a presentation of backyard cottage statistics that were gathered during the first year of the city wide backyard cottage ordinance. Following the presentation participants discussed working with the ordinance in practice and suggested potential improvements that could be made to the ordinance. You can view a video of the entire discussion at Backyard Cottages: 1 Year Later

There is also a backyard cottage annual report available to download from the DPD's website: Backyard Cottages Annual Report - April 2011

Of particular interest was the number of cottages permitted in the first year (57) and their relatively even distribution throughout the city. One of the primary concerns opponents had expressed in opposition to the ordinance was a fear that dense concentrations of cottages would "take over" single family neighborhoods causing widespread parking and privacy issues. The fear was so potent and adamantly expressed that at one point during the development of the ordinance city council members considered placing limits on the number of permits per year (50) and limits on the number of cottages allowed in any given area. Thankfully, neither limit was written into the code and the fears have been proven to be unjustified thus far.

A few other interesting issues that came to the surface during the discussion were:

  1. The relatively high costs of constructing a backyard cottage makes it difficult for home owners to see a return on their investment if they hope to use a cottage to generate rental income. In general it was felt that backyard cottages were an important new housing typology for the city and that the cottages are a valuable addition to the city's rental stock. It was proposed that the city should consider incentives that would help lower the cost of constructing a cottage and help encourage their creation. A reduced permit fee and property tax credits are two areas I think the city should review.
  2. The feeling that the off street parking requirements (2 spaces) was in most cases unnecessary and to the detriment of green space and usable yards. One idea put forth was to loosen the parking requirements by making it easier to obtain a parking waiver on streets where parking is not an issue.
  3. The base height limit was thought to be a bit too low and creates unreasonable difficulties for the construction of two story structures. During the public comment portion of the meeting architect Jim Burton suggested changing the datum to which the base height could be measured (top of plate) to add a bit to the base height limit and encourage homeowners to exceed minimum requirements for insulating roofs and ceilings. The overall height limit was thought to be adequate with the exception of the following issue:
  4. The current ordinance sets the height limit to 15' above an existing home. This was thought to be problematic and unfair in the case where the property owner's lot has a significant slope up behind the existing home.
  5. The current ordinance does not allow for a backyard cottage to be built on a through lot (a lot with a street on both the front and rear lot lines of a property). This was generally thought to be a mistake in the writing of the ordinance and that the ordinance should be revised to allow cottages on through lots.

All in all it was a fun and informative meeting. Kudos to the city employees key in the development of the ordinance and to Sally Clarke and the city council for passing the ordinance unanimously. After the first year of real world testing the ordinance has proven to be a resounding success.