Mercer Island City Council dives into residential code review

Following three consecutive Monday meetings regarding the proposed changes to the code that governs residential development on Mercer Island, the City Council has some tough decisions to make.

The code review process essentially started in November 2015, when a temporary moratorium on certain types of single family development was proposed. The moratorium would have focused on short and long platting and impervious surface deviations as a way to pause the rapid pace of development on the Island, and kick off a dialogue about the residential code. The discussion eventually evolved into the “changing character of Mercer Island neighborhoods” and ended up encompassing the tree codes, permitting processes and construction guidelines as well.

The moratorium was not enacted, but the council prioritized the residential standards review on its 2016-17 work plan, hiring a planning manager to oversee the process.

Over the past 18 months, the community has weighed in loudly on two opposing sides of the issue. One group argues that the city and its current residential code have failed to preserve the Island’s character by allowing overdevelopment, while the other group maintains that the current code works well and is already restrictive, and that the proposed changes will negatively affect property values.

The debate is summed up in one of the Planning Commission’s many recommendations: to reduce allowed gross floor area (GFA) by 11 percent by changing the limit from 45 to 40 percent. Commenters at a June 12 public hearing on the topic generally fell into one of two camps: don’t change the current code but work with developers and builders to address community concerns, or adopt the recommended changes and possibly take them even further.

Marc Rousso, cofounder of JayMarc Homes, which has built many of the new houses on the Island, said that he wants to be a good neighbor and strike a balance between reflecting the current market and the community. Fellow Island resident and builder Randy Koehler, of RKK Construction, said the 88-page draft code is “too restrictive and somewhat regressive.”

Other speakers who make their livelihood from development, including realtors, architects and a representative from the Master Builders Association, told the council to slow down their review and take the time needed to review all of the changes. They said that two drafts of the code published less than two weeks apart were very different.

Planning Commission member Suzanne Skone urged the council to “respect the process.” She said she understands that the constant revisions to the code may have been frustrating to follow, but that they created a better product in the end.

Carolyn Boatsman, who was recently appointed to the Planning Commission, said that despite many positive changes to the code, Islanders would be “disappointed and even disillusioned” with the draft at this point.

“When you’re putting together a puzzle but you keep redesigning the pieces, it’s a bit hard to see what the picture is looking like,” she said.

Eric Jansen, a 19-year resident, said the current code is “crazy complex,” and that the council should “keep it simple, and enforce the simplicity.”

Some speakers expressed support for at-grade pervious sport courts and construction management plans for large-scale projects. Others encouraged the council to take a second look at the proposals for accessory structures, setback requirements on odd-shaped lots and the planned reduction in required covered parking spaces from two to one.

“This is off-mission in a process designed to preserve the character of Mercer Island neighborhoods,” Boatsman said. “When our streets are lined with cars, we will really suffer a loss.”

The commission has also proposed doing away with impervious surface deviations — opting for a landscaping requirement instead — as well as increasing side yard setbacks, expanding tree protection and retention measures, reducing construction hours, lowering allowed roof height from 35 to 30 feet on slopes and allowing 5 percent more gross floor area for affordable dwelling units (ADUs) or accessibility requirements, among many other changes.

The council had a study session to continue its first reading on the proposed amendments on June 19, after the Reporter’s print deadline. The council discussed incentives for ADUs and single-story homes, along with ceiling and builing heights.

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