by Kirby Lindsay, posted 17 October 2012
Living in the residential area of Fremont, John and Diane Callahan were very fond of their neighbor Sophie. Seven years ago, when she couldn’t attend their wedding reception, they went to her, in all their wedding finery, to take pictures. When Sophie passed away, at age 102, the Callahans felt a significant loss.
A short time later, the home that Sophie had owned for more than 50 years, was sold by her son – as the Callahan’s expected. The son did take the time to reassure the couple that he’d sold, for market rate, to a nice couple that said they would fix up the house and flip it.
The new owner did fix it up, and sold it, again for market rate. Then a small, plastic fence went up along the driveway, cutting off access to the side yard on the property – and the area that bordered the Callahan’s property. In early 2011, when a jackhammer started tearing out parts of the driveway, the Callahan’s asked questions…and heard answers they never had any reason to suspect.
The House(s) Next Door
They found out a house was being built on the side yard – a three-and-one-half story house on a property of 3012.8 square feet – ten feet from the Callahan’s front door. “I checked with the son after,” John Callahan reported, and the son said the buyer never mentioned anything about building a second house on the property. The buyer who turned out to be Dan Duffus, a developer.
It turns out the one-story home that Sophie once owned, at 4111 – 1st Ave NW, had originally been built on more than one building lot. Over two purchases, the rest of the second lot was added to the first. So Duffus got a lot boundary adjustment – to change the boundary from a straight line that ran through the original house to a line five feet from the house that jogs sharply behind the garage to give the ‘other’ lot enough square footage to meet the minimum required for building – 2,500 – by pre-1972 standards.
In 1972, the ‘buildable area’ changed to 5,000 square feet, but before 1957, “if you owned a buildable lot, you were grandfathered in,” explained John Callahan, from his research. Duffus also got an easement from the new buyer for use of the driveway during construction on the side yard. “According to [the City of] Seattle, since the property owner owns both lots, the lot boundary adjustment is between only the City and the owner,” John Callahan explained, so he and other neighbors were never notified on any of this.
‘I’ve Lost My Sun’
In September 2012, the Seattle City Council approved council bill #117572 and temporarily stopped the issuance of permits for backyard/side lot houses. Councilmember Richard Conlin submitted this bill for closer examination of the regulations on such construction, in part due to efforts by an advocacy group called ‘One Home Per Lot.’
The Callahans are not part of that group. “I’m the guy that organized the neighbors here,” explained John Callahan. Yet, “I think we were able to save them a lot of time,” Diane Callahan acknowledged, as they have willingly shared their story, correspondence, petitions and knowledge gained while fighting the battle over the development next door.
The Callahan’s want to see the City and the Department of Planning & Development look at developments of sub-lots, but “there is no intention to stop a mother-in-law,” Diane Callahan stated. Certainly, the house now standing sentry over the Callahan’s is not an accessory dwelling. As John Callahan read the plans, he saw indications that it could be converted into a duplex.
“When the building permit is issued, it should take into account the look of the neighborhood,” John Callahan suggested. The building does look out-of-scale with its neighbors, and has windows that look into the bedroom and living room of the Callahan’s home. The building also blocks sunlight from the Callahan’s home and yard. At one of the Town Hall meetings they attended, Mayor Mike McGinn talked about the solar movement, and Diane Callahan reported that, “John popped up and said, ‘I’d love to be a part of it, but I’ve lost my sun.’”
The War Continues On, Elsewhere
“When I bought my property,” John Callahan said, “I didn’t expect this.” The construction of the house next door has even cost the Callahans money – moving plants, moving a satellite dish, constructing privacy screening, and rearranging the orientation of their property. This year Diane Callahan hasn’t used her deck, or the backyard, as much as before. “I feel uncomfortable,” she said, “I don’t feel like sitting out there, but I can get over that, and probably will.”
“It’s too late for us,” John Callahan conceded, but he’s proud to say, “we tried everything.” For instance, they collected 203 signatures on a petition, in two days, from the surrounding Fremont residents, “to stop indiscriminate development in established neighborhoods,” it reads.
The loss of sun, the lack of compatibility, the out-size scale size of the building all continue to motivate John Callahan to speak out about his experience, but it was a tree that really spurred him on. “They made my wife cry when they took that out,” he recalled.
Sophie had taken care with the side yard between her house and the one John Callahan bought in 1989, and forty years ago she planted a flowering dogwood tree in the center of it. “It was considered an ‘exceptional tree’ according to City guidelines,” Diane Callahan said, but under a Director’s rule, the owner could take it out to build a home on his property.
When considering the whole situation, Diane Callahan said her greatest reaction has been one of frustration. “I feel powerless to affect the process to effect change,” she said. Yet, she also said she takes comfort from her husband’s statement that ‘this is a battle. There is still a war.’
To find out more about this issue, city-wide, visit the ‘One Home Per Lot’ website, follow the efforts of City Council Richard Conlin and council bill #117572, and get active. Over the last few years, the Callahan’s lost a friend, and gained a cause. “We have a strong incentive to keep active,” Diane Callahan said. If nothing else, they want to keep another Fremonster from having their sun blotted out by a tower house built next door.
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©2012 Kirby Lindsay. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Reproduction, adaptation or distribution without permission is prohibited.