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City clarifies alley rules for builders
After the issue came to a head earlier this summer, the city planning department has issued a new, updated code interpretation for dealing with alleys in new housing developments.
Planning Director Chip Vincent told the council during Monday’s Committee of the Whole presentation that the idea is to simply provide “guidance, clarity and predictability” for developers to know when alleys are necessary in their developments.
The code presently reads “Alley access is the preferred street pattern except for properties in the Residential Low Density land use designation … Prior to approval of a plat without alley access, it shall be determined through an evaluation of alley layout that the use of alley(s) is not feasible.”
It is the word “preference” that is hanging up the MBA. Because alleys are “preferred” and not “required” the MBA wants more flexibility in their designs.
Developers and members of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties have challenged the city’s “preference” and would themselves prefer to build developments front access through a driveway, instead of through an alley. Adding alleys to a development reduces the amount of developable land and the builders say people also prefer driveway access when buying homes.
Barring a change in policy, however, builders have asked for clarification of when alleys will be required.
To clarify the matter, the city is proposing several new interpretations. First, Vincent said though the code includes alleys in the R-4 zoning, the city has never required them for that zone because it creates a “significant burden for the developer” on lots that size, so the city will take that zone out of the requirement.
In addition, because there is no current language for predicting when the alley standard will be applied, the city clarified its interpretation to say that alleys will only be required where they currently exist and only for subdivision with interior lots.
It makes no sense, Vincent said, to require alley access for exterior lots that ring a property.
Vincent also said there would be a threshold of more than six dwelling units per acre before the alley access is triggered; however, alleys will be required at any project that goes for maximum density.
Finally, Vincent said there would be three factors to determine the need for alleys that will help provide developers predictability when submitting site plans so there is less chance of them being sent back for further work.
Under the new interpretation, there will be no alleys required in any short plat (nine lots or fewer), if the topography is too steep or if the environmental impacts of having alleys has a greater negative effect than not having alleys.
Generally speaking, alleys will now be required in higher-density areas with eight homes per acre.
“At higher densities, with smaller lot sizes, it is far less practicable to adequately allow for front-loaded garages while facilitating the development of a quality neighborhood,” the interpretation reads.
MBA representative David Hoffman said he believed “significant progress” has been made on this issue since starting a “new conversation” with the city in July.
Land-use attorney Nancy Rogers, who represents Henley Homes, the builder that first challenged the interpretation this year on an open, 22-acre parcel of land in the city, requested further clarification, especially regarding the number of homes on an acre and the topographic concerns.
All of her issues were in a letter that Vincent said were acceptable and was attached as part of the report.
The larger issues of whether to allow alleys will come up again next year during the city’s code update, though many council members said they don’t think alleys are a good idea for reasons including safety and because it is not what people want.
But short of a change in city policy and code, council members generally expressed thanks and support for the new interpretation and will take up the matter again Monday.