Know Your Planning Commission 10.10.12

***This series of articles are recaps of planning commission meetings.  They will run after each meeting and are written by District 3 resident and Planning Commission member Chris McNutt.***

The Planning Commission is a Council appointed yet independent body of citizens who act as a vetting/advisory panel for land use and zoning to the City Council. The following is a personal account and may not reflect the opinions of other Planning Commission members.

The meeting on October 10th, 2012 covered two primary topics.

  1. South Hill Neighborhood Plan (Canceled due to illness)
  2. Continued Discussion on the Land Use Code Amendments

Somehow we managed to take what should have been an early night due to the agenda getting cut in half (Associate Planner Lindsey Sehmal was out sick) and extended the discussion on the remaining topic to fill up all our time. We had several good discussions about these proposed amendments and even some spirited debate, though we were missing one voice. Commissioner Nancy Johnson was not present. 

2.     Continued Discussion on the Land Use Code Amendments

These topics were lightly covered previously here in the lower section.  Since those descriptions were so brief I’m going to self-plagiarize and repeat parts of them here as an introductory foundation for each one. I’ll then expand based on what we discussed in this latest meeting. As before, this was presented by Associate Planner Chris Beale.

A. Preliminary Plat Timelines

From the previous article:
“The first amendment… is to clean up PMC (Puyallup Municipal Code) 19.08.140 which regulates how long a preliminary subdivision approval can last. The city code specifies 7 years, while the state legislature has recently changed it to 9 years.”

The State’s 9 year allowance trumps the cities currently outdated code, so it’s going to be 9 years whether or not we fix the inconsistency.  The primary discussion point centered around whether to also allow extensions on that 9 years.

Currently the PMC (Puyallup Municipal Code) says you have 7 years from the time you submit your application to when the application period expires.  There is also an option to extend i tone additional year. Since the state is mandating 9 years outright, we ended up concluding this is effectively an automatic 2 year extension and is sufficient.  Approaching the decade time frame, even with the economic issues we’ve had, is excessive because too much can change.

B. SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) Comment/Appeal Period Timelines

From the previous article:
“The second amendment… is a change to PMC 21.04.205 (1), and .090 which has to do with how the public commenting timeline is executed. The city planning department would like to add in a state provisioned optional timeframe which would forgo the standard public comment period when they discover there is negligible environmental impact. Instead, the comment period would coincide with the application period.”

Here, I expressed my concerns over altering the established and predictable public comment periods. These comment periods often reveal unforeseen issues, and eliminating them in favor of application expediency because it is determined that there are no unforeseen issues (nice contradiction there) is bad public policy.  Plus, at most, this would save 14 days. There was general agreement about this, and additionally it was brought up that shorter timelines on some projects could show favoritism, or in fact, could be favoritism.

C. Binding Site Plan (BSP) Committee

From the previous article:
“The third amendment… relates to PMC 19.10.050 and would be a shift in approval authority from a committee to the Hearing Examiner. [Note: A binding site plan is basically a way for someone to lock an approved plan in place for a time so that they don’t have to revise everything if an ordinance changes in the middle of their project] The committee currently consists of the Development Services Director, the Public Works Director, the Building Code Official, and the Fire Code Official. The issue is that often times one or more of the committee members are in charge of reviewing, constructing and then approving the BSPs and this can be a conflict of interest or result in not enough oversight.”

We breezed through this topic with everyone present in agreement with this idea.

E. Single Family Residential (SFR) – Permitted Use in RM-10 Zone Districts

From the previous article:
“The fourth amendment… deals with changes to PMC 20.25.010, .020, and .028 and has to do with allowing Single Family Residence building on the Multi-Family zoned plots.”

This is where the spirited debate came in. My thoughts on this haven’t changed a lot since the last time it was covered, but they have evolved somewhat. Commissioner Hastings and I disagreed pretty adamantly, and I’ll do my best to provide a faithful recreation of his points as I saw them.

There are some specific areas of the city which are mostly populated by Single Family Homes and some time ago, these areas were rezoned to RM-10 (Multi-Family Residential, 6-14 dwelling units per acre. with building types such as condos, townhomes, duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes. Oh the plexes. Morpheus, the God of Sleep Good Dreams recommends a full read of PMC 20.25.

The downside of this for existing Single Family Homes is that if they wanted to do a teardown and rebuild, or even if they lost their home in a fire, they couldn’t rebuild as a Single Family Home, since the zoning requires one of the above listed Multi-Family unit types.

This amendment would allow someone in an RM-10 zone to build or rebuild under the RS-04 ordinances. (RS-04 is Single Family Residential, minimum of 4000 square foot lot size.)

My thoughts are, while this would solve the issue mentioned above, it is an inelegant way to do so. Altering the rules for every RM-10 zone in the city to solve a specific problem is not the way to do it. Opening up this specific zone to allow such a wide range of options makes the zone meaningless and inconsistent.  It was also brought up that under these rules someone could build a small house sandwiched in between much larger structures. That might be fine for the first occupant, but it could also result in a home which would remain long vacant and a liability to the neighborhood.

I further argued, that someone in the position described above already has a process to fix it.  They can submit a rezoning application (though this would be a Comprehensive Plan amendment and subject to a yearly processing cycle).  A problem with allowing it outright is that it circumvents the application and review process and allows developers the leeway to make poor choices for the city with little oversight. If someone were to apply for this zoning change and be denied due to incompatibility, why would we want to simply allow it everywhere? Conversely, if that same application were approved, then the system works and the existing process is sufficient.

So Commissioner McNutt, do you have no heart? Can you not see there are people who need this for a happier and better life?

Those in this situation are absolutely in a bad position, and they do need a solution, but not necessarily this one.

I believe a better approach would be to amend the Non-Conforming Use policies (which provision rules for land uses not allowed by their zoning).  Furthermore, the city could take initiative and start the rezoning process on its own to right this terrible wrong. I will likely propose these very solutions and I’ll be asking Commissioner Hastings for his support.

I’d also like to mention, this would have possible implications for the rezoning of the Meridian Mobile Home Park we discussed previously (here and here.) Instead of evicting the residents and putting up an apartment building, this provision would allow them to evict everyone and build a tightly packed neighborhood of single family homes.

While researching this topic, Morpheus also pointed out PMC 20.25.028 which states “Pre-existing single-family residences and duplexes are subject to those development standards in the RS-04 zone district.” I made inquiries about the implications of this clause under the above teardown/fire example, but at the time of writing, I have not heard back.

F. RM-20 Side Yard Setbacks

I glossed over this one in the previous article, I think because it was grouped with the topic above.  This grouping caused the issues to be closely associated, at least in my head, but they really are separate. The issue is that the RM-20 zone (Multi-Family Residential, 8-22 dwelling units per acre) has a side yard setback (the side area of the yard which must be preserved between the properly line and the structure) which seems out of proportion to RM-10 and RM-35.  Currently RM-20 is 15ft, while RM-10 is 3ft, and RM-35 is 15ft.  There are additional setback rules for when the property is up against a single family residence, and those would remain in place.

There was a lot of discussion around this issue, and I don’t know if the change is warranted or not.  On one hand a progression from a small number to a large number is good symmetry, on the other, I don’t know why those were established to begin with.  It could be that everything was 15ft at one time and then RM-10 was gradually ratchet down… or any number of scenarios.  I would like to hear some more about the issue before deciding, though this will likely still end up with the city council for them to make the ultimate decision.

G. Rear Yard Area – Detached Accessory Structures

From the previous article:
“The fifth amendment… relates to PMC 20.20.040 (4)(b) which make allowances for detached accessory buildings (like a detached garage) on lots less than 8,000 square feet in size. Currently there is a formula which calculates an area known as the “rear yard area” and specifies that these buildings can’t be more than 25% of that area. The trouble is that the use of this calculation on any lot which meets the minimum sizes in the RS-04, RS-06, and RS-08 (RS means single family residence, -04 means the minimum lot size is 4,000 sq. ft., -06 is 6,000 sq. ft., -08 is 8,000 sq. ft.) prevents the allowance of any such building.”

The discussion on this item seemed to be all over the place, and I’m not sure what Chris Beale took away from it.  It’s a little complicated to visualize and I don’t have any drafting tools so I’ll try to explain.

The “rear yard area” is calculated by multiplying the rear setback (say, 15ft) by the width of the property (say 50ft on a 50x80ft lot for a total of 4000 square feet). Under the current code this 750 square foot area could only be occupied by a maximum of 187.5 square feet of the building.  If you wanted to add a 600 square foot garage to access the alley behind your house, you’d have to set it back it back about 7-8 feet from the alley, and that much closer to your home.  In fact, in this example, your home would have to be no more than 48 feet deep and 15ft from the road in order to accommodate a 25×24 building in the back. This would split usable back yard area into spaces on both the front and back of your garage.

The proposed alteration is to change it from a 25% maximum rear yard area coverage to the following set of rules.

All lots where detached accessory buildings are proposed between the rear lot line and the primary dwelling unit a contiguous rear or side usable yard space equivalent to at least 10% of the lot size for lots 6,000 square feet or larger and 5% of the lot size for lots 5,999 square feet and smaller shall be provided. This usable yard space shall meet all of the following standards:

  1. Have no dimension less than 15 feet, except for lots that are less than 6,000square feet, where the minimum dimension shall be no less than 10 feet; and,
  2. Not include other structures (excluding covered/uncovered decks which may be counted toward the usable yard space requirement) or parking areas,
  3. Not be located in the front yard

I’m not sure if this change is answering a specific incident or complaint, but these new rules seem a bit better than the old ones, or at least they seem functional.

H. Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s, also known as Mother-in-Law units)

From the previous article:
“The… final amendment… has to do with PMC 20.020.010 (9) which deals with outbuildings colloquially known as “Mother-in-law” units. It seems we have a bit of unfair code on the books with this one. Back in 1995 the Mother-in-law allowances were removed from our code. We weren’t told why it was removed, but we do know that the city has to deny 2-3 legitimate and sometimes heartbreaking requests for such units each month.”

This topic also took up a pretty good chunk of time and we ended up not really delving much into the code changes, instead talking a lot about the concept and potential issues this may generate.

It turns out that in 1995 the code was recommended by the Planning Commission for both attached and detached accessory dwelling units, but the City Council removed the sections about detached units as well as the provisions for attached units in the RS-10 zone before final adoption.

I brought up my concerns for how this might apply to the Shaw Road Halfway House issue (covered here, here, and here since there are outbuildings already on the property.  I am concerned that they could be converted, and if additional dwelling units might then extend the number of allowed residents.  This is being investigated, and I’m sure that these larger issues will be taken into account within the final code.

The other issues that were discussed were the effects on inserting units, which could be used strictly as rentals, into existing communities.  Also, there was some concern that they may disrupt or encroach on existing neighbors privacy and peace.

I would like the council take a look at this once we have our draft policies established, and I think there may be a way to both take care of the problems disallowing them causes and also the needs of the existing communities.

Seattle has established similar code and they have a list of allowed building plans.  An approach like this, when combined with the above adjustments to accessory building placement, could result in usable code which would be a benefit to the city.

We do however have to make sure we watch out for policies that encourage the renting instead of the ownership of homes. It’s a viable market driven option, but we all want our neighbors to be both long term and invested in the communities around them.  Puyallup is currently over 47% rentals, and having a transient dominated community is something to be wary of.

For more specific information about the meeting, please see the following list of resources.

If you have questions or concerns about this (or any other city matter) please reach out to the City Council, myself or any other Planning Commission member. Also, feel free to comment below. I’ll try my best to answer questions.

We are adjourned.

Chris McNutt
District 3
Planning Commissioner

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