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Seattle backyard cottages get support from unlikely source: suburban lawmakers

caption: A backyard cottage in Crown Hill by Cast Architecture. The firm has been a leader promoting backyard cottages in Seattle.
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A backyard cottage in Crown Hill by Cast Architecture. The firm has been a leader promoting backyard cottages in Seattle.
Courtesy of Cast Architecture

Lawmakers in Olympia support backyard cottages for different reasons than Seattleites, but their goals are the same: To increase density in urban single family neighborhoods where the cost of housing continues to rise.

The product of their efforts could be a statewide law that leapfrogs Seattle’s proposed new backyard cottage law, currently delayed by a legal dispute.

Representative Mia Gregerson hails from south King County, and her legislative jurisdiction includes very urban areas but also less-dense areas with big back yards. She said her constituents need backyard cottages for the extra income.

“We have lots of little old ladies on a fixed income who still have these properties,” she said. “And if we’re not careful, in trying to help them in finding creative ways to stay on their properties, I think we all suffer.”

In the state Senate, Guy Palumbo has a different reason for pushing backyard cottages: He said the suburbs are overwhelmed by people who can’t afford to live in Seattle.

“You could look at North Bend, Duvall, Lake Stevens, South Snohomish County, Marysville; all these places are taking the growth because people can’t afford a home in Seattle,” he said.

“And we don’t have the ability to deal with it. We don’t have schools, we don’t have sidewalks, we don’t have buses in many cases.”

The solution, said Palumbo, is to spur more housing construction in Seattle. “Seattle is the biggest job center and the biggest city in our state and it’s not acting like it,” he said.

Many Seattle residents would scoff at the idea that Seattle hasn’t taken its share of growth.

Earlier this month, the Seattle Times Editorial Board criticized lawmakers outside of Seattle for “micromanaging” Seattle’s land use laws.

The Queen Anne Community Council has said backyard cottages would bring more residents to existing neighborhoods without giving them places to park. It is that group's legal challenges that have held up Seattle's new backyard cottage law.

Carl Schroeder, of the Association of Washington Cities, said backyard cottages are generally popular with cities because “they help facilitate growth in existing neighborhoods in a way that isn’t too disruptive.”

But the key seems to be alleviating concerns as they arise. Schroeder said his group is working with legislators to fine tune proposals and help make them successful for cities.

“For instance, height limits can ensure these new homes don’t tower over the existing neighborhood. That’s the kind of decision we think is important to leave to local discretion.”

A vote on the statewide backyard cottage law in Olympia could come as early as Friday. A decision from the hearing examiner on Seattle’s slightly more aggressive backyard cottage law is expected in mid April.

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