Reader view: Is Edmonds ending single-family zoning?

Let’s start this discussion with a few definitions to make sure we’re all on the same page. What is single-family residential (SFR) zoning?

Per our city code, the purpose of single family residential is: “To reserve and regulate areas primarily for family living in single-family dwellings.”  Our code further defines single-family dwellings as: “Single-family dwelling (and single-family dwelling unit) means a detached building used by one family, limited to one per lot.”  Pretty clear, right?

Not so fast, because, as you probably know by now, there is a movement afoot to change these definitions or to eliminate single-family zoning altogether. All with the intent to increase density. Let’s take a look at what we can expect to see going forward, using “urban design solutions for redesigning suburbs”.

The urban planners are telling us that we need multi-family, “missing middle housing” to provide housing diversity and increase housing choice. The goal being to incrementally increase population density at the expense of single-family housing. A mindset with the premise that our current growth trajectory cannot be met by other means. To their credit, they make no claim that this is about affordable housing, because it’s not.

A major theme of these planners is that the urban setting should be walkable, hence why we’re seeing the recent “reimagining our streets and neighborhoods” initiative. Walkable is defined as within a 10-minute walk of a destination. With our topography and weather (and least I mention sidewalk situation), how many of our neighborhoods are within a 10-minute walk of a destination? A destination which serves one’s everyday needs. I’m not saying the concept is bad, and I do applaud the city for reaching out to the community for discussion and input on this idea. The idea may actually have merit in certain areas of our city, but not city-wide.  What I do wish is that the city would be transparent about their intentions and put it in the broader context of our Comprehensive Plan update as a scenario, but not the only option being considered, which right now, it appears to be.

To achieve their goal, they will tell you the “equitable” thing to do is to change ALL single-family residential to allow for these multi-family dwellings. To make it aesthetically palatable they suggest that it’s house-form or house-scale buildings that just happen to have multiple units within them. So called form-based housing.  Any way you slice it, it’s still multi-family housing in SFR zones.

My question is, where are the suburban planners? What if we approached planning for growth from a different perspective or point-of-view? Let’s start with the end in mind.  Do we want a neighborhood suburban environment or a dense urban one? Or, has this decision already been made for us?

What’s happening in Ballard has been a recurring comparison being made by many. I was recently challenged to make the comparison more definitive. I like challenges!  So, let’s take a quick look at Ballard.

I don’t know the history of how Ballard evolved (and continues to evolve), whether there was community input and acceptance or if the developers and politicians ramrodded through their zoning changes. And I’m not going to disparage those who live in, or like Ballard. I will, however, ask if this is the direction we want to take Edmonds?

On my very first Redfin search I came up with the following listing in Ballard:

Aside from the unappealing physical aspects of the proposed building in relation to the single-family residence next door, what I’ll draw your attention to is the “BUILDER ALERT” at the bottom of the page. Here we have a small-footprint duplex being advertised to builders specifically for upzoning. And with no on-site parking requirements to boot! This is Ballard today. Edmonds tomorrow?

The main point here is that we need to be careful what we wish for. This is a slippery slope for which it is very difficult to develop housing codes to protect the neighborhood character once a rezoning decision is made. I know that I’ll be accused of sensationalism, and to some extent I’ll accept it, however it’s hard to argue with the above facts.

I believe that our current zoning code is flexible enough as is to accomplish our growth objectives without requiring a wholesale change to single-family zoning. I’m not saying that it’s perfect, but I do think we can review our current footprint and make some strategic and surgically precise changes to increase our housing diversity. Planned growth, not leaving it to developers who have no vested interest in our community, other than to make a buck, leaving us with ad-hoc neighborhoods. One size does not fit all.

Unfortunately, this missing middle upzoning concept is gaining some traction within our city’s inner circles. A few on the planning board, a few councilmembers and obviously the city are starting to float the idea. They start by advocating for either detached accessory dwelling units or duplexes in all SFR neighborhoods. Neither of which adhere to our definition of single-family residential. So, they would need to change the definition (or eliminate SFR) in order to enact even these ideas. Make no mistake about it, this is the foothold that they are looking for to make even bigger changes in the future. Ground zero, so to speak.

I’m sure we’ll be revisiting this topic many times between now and the Comprehensive Plan update.  This letter is my attempt to be proactive and get out in front of this before their narrative takes further hold.  I believe this is a community decision, and not one left solely to a board or council.

Let the discussion begin.

— By Jim Ogonowski

Jim Ogonowski lives in Edmonds

  1. Good analysis.
    Developers want to change downtown Edmonds.
    Developers want water views.
    They do not actually care about the middle or affordability in the rest of the city.
    Do not go along with what is being proposed.
    Consultants are paid to help accomplish the goals of those who hired them.

  2. Thank you, Jim for getting involved and so eloquently stating the material facts. What we have. What is proposed. Your example in Ballard is perfect and a home run.

    Since 1981, I’ve been involved in the protection of our City Code. More people need to get involved to protect our smalltown atmosphere and unique environmental features. We can grow but let’s grow responsibly with input from the citizens and not planners that believe they have a better idea.

    I favor appropriate setbacks, lot coverage and building heights for protected of surrounding property rights.

    Click on my name to see some of my efforts.

    1. Thank you well put. Time to take action are we going to let the administration run our lives? Today’s left voting block think they know what is better for me. We are supposed to have representative government and it seems our mayor and administration are doing their best to circumvent that. Or if not, they are wasting tons of tax dollars for no good reason. Thanks Jim for spelling it out.

    2. Would it be too obvious to point out that city planners probably do know a lot better about city planning than most of us? Truly though, I used to favor suburban settings, but that’s only because my experience with large cities was with ones that are poorly designed. Check out Not Just Bikes or City Beautiful on YouTube if you want to see some examples of urban development that doesn’t suck. I think we need to build with the future generations in mind. Another major drawback to Suburban sprawl is that it can never pay for its own maintenance, which is unreasonably costly.

  3. Affordable housing, “missing middle” housing is unattainable in Edmonds.
    The privileged elite running this city have sent a clear message – only the rich are issued permits and allowed to build homes here.
    They discourage rather than encourage affordable housing efforts.
    They also plan to designate all vacant single family zoned properties with steep slopes as unbuildable, taking away potential of new single family homes.
    Edmonds’ tree ordinance requires owners of vacant land to compensate the city for the lack of tree canopy caused by the development of all previously built homes.
    Those without homes are denied permits until the city’s been compensated for the lack of tree canopy caused by 100 years of development…making us pay for the damage all homes have caused.
    City requirements and fees easily add up to $200,000 per home. This extra cost is passed on to home buyers.
    The city council has passed ordinances allowing seizure, charging vacant land owners for the rights to their own trees and charging for each cubic foot of earth moved to build foundations.
    Our neighbor has to pay $64,000 for his own trees before issued a permit for one home, we have to pay $107,000 (it would have been 3-4 times that without the fee limit of $2 per sq foot of property) and permanently relinquish to the city all rights to our 72 remaining trees on our property for our family’s three homes.
    This city denies home building in single family zones until it’s paid off and property rights to every tree are permanently relinquished.
    What should homes be without so we can pay for the lack of tree canopy that existing homes caused? Roofs, windows, foundations??
    Many of us can no longer afford to build in Edmonds and vacant property values have declined because of the city fees required to build.
    Citizens, enjoy the privilege of living in homes without having paid twice for every tree that was cut for your home to stand… …just as everyone in the United States has the right to do …unless you own vacant land in Edmonds.

  4. I’m kinda surprised at the lack of depth in this op-ed. It adds no concrete prescriptions. It’s clear the author has a grasp on current city code in Edmonds but the Ballard comparison is so surface level that I don’t see how it’s adds more to the discussion. There is a long middle ground between Edmonds today and the developments going up in Ballard. I do hope we see more robust conversation on the future of the city, though! I just encourage us to be more specific about what we like and don’t like and what our values are as a town.

  5. And you can add Kirkland to the list of former livable small waterfront towns that are now stacked, packed and racked with character killing density.

  6. I believe the code in Edmonds is single family BUT you can have 4 unrelated people living together; not sure that would qualify in my mind as single family but it does to the city. (think roommates or renters that pay under the table) The ruling is really quite lax to begin with. Our neighborhood went through this a number of years ago with a house that has many unrelated people living in it and still does.

    1. Laurie, now that you mention this, we just happen to have a nice little 20 ft. travel trailer with it’s own little semi-private camp ground on our premises that is suitable for four people who really like each other to rent for $200/night. Close to downtown Edmonds (soon to feature no nasty polluting cars; round the clock drinking parties and Euro style living for the masses). Just 2 little Franklins/night and you too can be part of all this.

  7. I would remind readers of Ben Cain’s Letter to the editor: Multifamily housing isn’t always ‘affordable’ Posted: March 9, 2022

    There has been a lot of news in Edmonds and Washington state about “Affordable Housing” lately. I want to share my latest experience with this. My office is in the “No Corners” (formerly 5 Corners) area of Edmonds. Next door to my office on 82nd Place West was a 50-year-old, 1,886-square-foot rambler. The zoning has been multi-family for a long time. The home was built before the change in zoning.

    Drive by and take a look, 21222 82nd Pl. W. On June 14, 2019, a developer bought this home for $550,000 (according to the Snohomish County Assessor’s Office). It was then torn down and in its place is now a two-story fourplex. They are for sale now. Two are priced at $824,000 and the other two are $899,000.

    And, at least one unit actually Sold: $920,000. And this happened where zoning allowed this complex.

  8. It occurs to me that if we had real representative “districts” or “wards” we could have regular meetings with Council Members who are actually citizens of the given geographical area they purport to represent. Residents actually meeting routinely with THEIR Representative on Council. It’s kind of logical that different areas of town might have different housing needs and wants and the ability to evaluate the available space to accomplish those needs would seem to better come from the people who will be affected, than those who won’t. Individual Representatives could lobby the Council as a whole for what their current constituents want for the area where they live. We need to figure out how to make the bureaucracy work for us instead of against us all the time. We’ve now reached the low point of discussing supreme court decisions at the City Council level. What’s next, should Ukraine join NATO?

  9. I agree Maryellen,

    When a community is a desirable place to live, no matter the conditions of the homes, the prices will be high and affordable housing is not attainable unless developers and homeowners are willing to take less than market value.

    The city of Edmonds has been increasing costs and requirements of building and remodeling homes for years with excessive requirements and fees. This last year’s increases has been monumental as far as fees and takings of property rights from owners.

    They charge vacant land owners for rights to their own property before allowing use for single family homes and owners must make payments for and permanently relinquish all rights to trees on the properties to the city before permits will be issued.

    All new home buyers will have to absorb these costs and will never have the property rights to their trees on their properties that 100% of the nation and Edmonds homeowners do now.

    Edmonds planning department and government talks the talk but their walk rolls down slippery slopes of raising home prices and unconstitutional takings.

    1. Well said Jim. It’s all about money. Affordable housing in Edmonds? Please spare us. Just once I’d like to hear some politician come out and say it, “This is about greed”. At least I could respect that.

      Before anyone gets elected, I think it should be a requirement they drive through the City of Shoreline and we can end this silliness right now. Having grown up there, I guarantee they butchered parts of that City.

    2. Well put Linda. We recently rebuilt our relatively small deck and the permit was just over $600. Something that realistically should have been in the below $100 range. We were questioned on the height of the deck, even though it was well below the height of the house (which is about 19ft below the ht. limit) and they had to do a wetlands inspection even though one was done for the original deck and the area hasn’t been a wetland since it was located under the Salish Sea in prehistoric time. That added about $140.00 to the fee costs. Small potatoes to the issues you are facing, but I sympathize totally with you.

  10. I actually think the Ballard development isn’t that bad. The real problem is a bunch of Edmonds NIMBYs who can’t stand change. I will always vote for council members who allow Edmonds to grow and new buildings to be developed to replace older buildings.

    1. If you like Ballard, great, you may want to consider living in Ballard. Personally, I would never want to live in Ballard.

      Growth is fine and obviously inevitable, an idea and plan of what it entails should be decided by the people that live in the community. Not decided for us.

  11. Edmonds needs housing and creating a walkable urban district here would provide so many benefits and make for a very cool downtown. I appreciate the city’s vision and it definitely goes along with best practices in city planning and development! We have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work, and sprawling suburban infrastructure is unaffordable to maintain. If you are not sold on the new development, check out the YouTube channels “City Beautiful” or “Not Just Bikes” and learn about the real consequences of suburban development.

  12. Being the “old (supposedly rich) white guy”, “evil woman hating Mansplainer”, “NIMBY”, “law and order, gun lover”, “over represented”, “malcontent”, “backward looking”, loser I seem to be, I guess it only makes sense for me to shut up and quit even trying to make this the great place to live it once was. I’m too old to move and really, really, really like what my wife and I have created for ourselves on our sweet little patch of Edmonds. As long as the city leaves me and what I have alone, I’m good.

    Build your giant ugly apartment buildings, block off downtown streets and turn them into a Eruo-Disney amusement park and keep helping our local rich people get even richer. Think I’ll just laugh at you all and enjoy the show for awhile longer. I might as well just be what I’m accused of being by the movers and shakers who keep wanting to remake the town and change the rules (nothing in it for them, of course, they are just trying to grow and share).

  13. Clinton,

    I believe everyone should respect another’s courage to speak out against something they disagree with without attacking one another.

    Changes to the places we live are inevitable and as we grow older some changes are hard to accept, but in our maturity, we can also identify changes that we’ve seen negatively impact other people and communities and point them out so our community might avoid the same mistakes.

    I think those who speak out are very important to communities.

    In the past few years it seems more acceptable to attack people with differing opinions to shut them down instead of entering into respectful conversations with open minds.

    Agreeing to disagree without animosity is the best way to live in peace.

    Every opinion matters and no one should be called names or belittled because of their beliefs whether it is on the left or right side of an issue.

    I’m sorry if this has happened to you.

  14. Linda, thanks for the call out and kind words. I’m just tired of all the labeling, emotional rhetoric, and argument. There are some really smart people in town who want to dispassionately look at the various issues and get an honest hearing by our elected officials. They are largely ignored. We are years behind on things we need to do to protect everyone and we are bogged down in name calling and posturing about non-city business. National party politics have infected our city politics. Municipal plans already made are ignored and we debate things we can’t do anything about at the municipal level. It’s too much and I’m tired of worrying about it or caring what happens here anymore. If the younger people and their leaders think they are making things better just go for it. I’ve had my turn, now it’s yours.

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