A possible hold for new home construction on Mercer Island

November 20, 2015 | by Erin Sirianni

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A Craftsman home in Mercer Island's First Hill neighborhood

A Craftsman home in Mercer Island’s First Hill neighborhood

With most new commercial development on hold in Mercer Island’s Town Center, the City may soon put a temporary stop on many new development projects in Mercer Island’s neighborhoods as well.

A residential development moratorium was proposed at the eleventh hour of the last City Council meeting – surprising most of the council by one of their own.

The Midnight Special (here’s what happened)
Around midnight, Deputy Mayor Dan Grausz, a homeowner in Mercer Island’s First Hill neighborhood, presented the rest of the council with a proposal to enact a six-month residential development moratorium to address “real changes in the character of the neighborhoods.”

The reasons for such changes he pointed to were short-plat developments (subdivisions) and lot coverage deviations.

“You’re taking a block where you had five houses and then you suddenly have six houses or seven houses,” he said. “If the underlying lot sizes are sufficient you can do subdivisions.”

Grausz also pointed to automatic approval of lot coverage deviations: “I don’t fault the staff because they are working with a code that says that they have to approve these. So you end up with larger houses and you end up with more houses.”

As such, his proposed residential development moratorium would put the brakes on any new applications for subdivision and lot coverage deviations.

Mercer Island currently has a moratorium on applications for development over two stories in height in the Town Center, which Grausz referred to:

Just like we determined last January or February we had an obligation to this community to address what was going on in Town Center before things got worse, it’s even more so in the neighborhoods where there’s no question that a subdivision in your neighborhood could have such a dramatic impact on the character of your neighborhood and can have much more of an impact on your life and those of your neighbors than what goes on in Town Center.”

Grausz presented two drafts – an emergency ordinance that would put the moratorium into effect immediately and a non-emergency ordinance that would provide for a second reading and vote at the City Council’s December 7th meeting.

The proposal caught the other council members by surprise. Benson Wong said he was “bothered by the emergency nature of this. This is literally coming out of nowhere.”

Typically, moratoria originate from neighborhood and community activists. The idea for the current Town Center moratorium came from Mercer Island community activist group, Save Our Suburbs.

Yet the proposal found a majority of support. Wong, Jane Meyer Brahm, Mike Cero, and Dan Grausz voted in support of the non-emergency ordinance. Bruce Bassett and Debbie Bertlin voted against.

Bassett said that while he applauded the intent of the ordinance, the moratorium would require a complete re-write of Chapter 19 of the Mercer Island Municipal Code, which he described as “important work that cannot be taken on in the near term” with the current constraints on the City and design commission with Town Center re-visioning work.

Bertlin said that two weeks does not allow sufficient time for “robust public debate, transparency, and dialogue.”
(Here’s the Mercer Island Reporter’s complete play-by-play of the council’s discussion.)

What are the details of the moratorium?
The six-month moratorium, if enacted, would halt two types of applications:

1) Applications for subdividing lots, i.e short plats (less than four lots) and long-plats (more than four lots).

2) Applications requesting impervious surface* deviations; also referred to as lot coverage deviations. Lot coverage is the amount of surface area covered by a building/home on that lot. For example, the current lot coverage limit for a flat lot is 40%, but if certain criteria are met, the City may allow for an additional five percent of lot coverage.

*Impervious surface requirements were created to prevent excessive water runoff and destabilization caused by removal of natural terrain.

Potential impacts on Developers, Home Owners, and Home Buyers

If the moratorium passes, applications received after December 7th will not be reviewed during the six-month moratorium period. Property owners who have already submitted complete applications will be able to proceed with development (i.e. the Coval property).

Developers of “mega-homes,” as described by several council members, will most obviously be impacted by the moratorium, though private property owners who are planning to build will be impacted as well. Between 2013 and 2015, the City received 79 applications for lot coverage deviations, but only 25 (about one-third) of those were submitted by developers, i.e. JayMarc Luxury Homes and RKK Construction, according to the Development Services Director Scott Greenberg.

The development moratorium may also frustrate potential home buyers as it will slow the number of new construction homes for sale in the local market, which is already extremely short on available inventory.

What’s your take?
Islanders have certainly expressed frustration by new home development before, as shared in this blog post “Eastside Mansions Invade Mercer Island,” published on Mercer Island blog, Surrounded by Water.

Yet in response, Islanders point out that development increases property values and the city’s tax base to provide enhanced services to current residents. Additionally, many Mercer Island neighborhoods have Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CCRs) and Homeowners Associations that already act to preserve charm and character and limit development.

Is the residential development moratorium a good idea or a bad idea?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Additional Reading / Links:

A Second Island Moratorium? [MI Reporter]
City Council Considers Residential Development Moratorium [Press release]
Proposed Moratorium Draft [City of Mercer Island]