Wednesday, April 25, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tightly packed "air condos" rile critics

Times Snohomish County Bureau

As home prices climb throughout the Puget Sound region, a new type of housing has sprouted like mushrooms all over unincorporated Snohomish County.

And like mushrooms, the developments are both loved and hated.

Defended by developers as a source of affordable housing for young families, the homes have been snapped up by homebuyers, many of whom praise them for their size, price and community feel.

But the housing has been lambasted by some neighbors, city governments and fire-department officials as poorly planned and unsafe.

And a major dispute over the developments has roiled between Snohomish County's cities and county government, provoking one city representative to say the relationship between builders and the County Council "looks like a backroom deal and crooked politics."

The developments' closely packed, single-family homes are similar to condos, except the dwellings don't share walls. The houses are owned individually, but common space, including roads, is owned and managed condo-style by all of the residents through a homeowner's association.

They're often dubbed "air condos" because homeowners own only the space inside their walls. They've also been called "LDMRs" after the zoning — Low Density Multiple Residential — where they're most often built.

According to county zoning laws, as many as 12 of the houses can be built on an acre. They can be as close as 10 feet from each other.

"It's awful what's happening," said Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson. "County policies are allowing for twice the unit growth and the density growth that the cities would allow."

Locals say the houses are changing the character of their neighborhoods. They complain about the aesthetic impact and a lack of space for kids to play.

"They don't integrate well with established neighborhoods. They're extremely out of character," said Charlo Dixon, who lives near North Creek outside Bothell. She's part of the Gravenstein Neighborhood Group, a local group that opposes the housing.

And by bringing in thousands of new residents, neighbors say, the developments are overloading already-taxed road and school systems, as well as impacting the environment.

First built in 1990s

Ramah Mannan, 33, lives at Parkview Village on Ash Way near Lynnwood, a development sporting 36 brightly colored new houses on a little more than three acres.

The houses, she admits, are very close together. And sometimes she worries about getting her children out of their bedroom's small, third-story window in case of a fire.

But overall, Mannan says she loves her home, which she and her husband bought two years ago for $270,000.

"Being able to get into a new house for what we can afford was really great," Mannan said. "I think the development's really cute. It has that feel of a community."

Her in-laws live a few houses down in the same development. Often, the families baby-sit for one another.

Her house has no yard, but for Mannan, that's a good thing. With three small children and another on the way, she said, she and her husband don't have time to take care of one.

The children play between the houses; a jungle gym shared by all the residents, with a slide and monkey bars, sits on a mulched space.

Parkview Village is one of at least seven such developments along Ash Way. Overall, about 200 of the developments have been built in Snohomish County since January 2004, said Tom Rowe of Snohomish County Planning and Development Services.

The first of these developments was built in the mid-1990s. But Rowe said their numbers have escalated in the past several years. The number of applications to build them rose sharply in 2006 to 118, compared with 40 applications in 2005 and 32 in 2004.

The largest, built two years ago, has 245 single-family homes on 22 acres, Rowe said.

Most of the developments contain 40 to 50 units, said Mike Pattison of the Master Builders Association. He said the homes' prices average $250,000 to $300,000. But those in the new developments can often sell for more, as evidenced on Ash Way, where prices listed outside newly built homes range from $320,000 to $400,000.

By comparison, the average price for a Snohomish County home in a traditional subdivision is $380,000, according to Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

Pattison said the new housing is helping Snohomish County meet the mandates of the Growth Management Act by adding density within urban areas.

"Not only are these the last vestiges of affordable housing, they're going fast," he said. "And especially to first-time home buyers, they're very popular."

Words of warning

City and fire officials say many residents who move into these developments don't know what they're getting into. They point to a long list of problems, among them that the developments frequently have no sidewalks.

Safety is a major concern, said Terry Ryan, mayor pro tem of Mill Creek, who has been active in city efforts against the developments.

"It's a fireman's nightmare," said Ryan, who serves on the Mill Creek/Fire District 7 joint fire board.

Fire officials say that because buildings are placed so close together, ladders can't safely reach third-story windows between buildings.

Lynnwood Fire Marshal LeRoy McNulty said streets in the developments are not built to public standards to ensure emergency access. Often they're barely wide enough for firetrucks and emergency vehicles, he said. And because of insufficient parking, people tend to park in fire lanes, he said.

If enough people park illegally, fire engines could get stuck.

And because the roads are private, the homeowners association, not city or county law enforcement, is responsible for ticketing and towing. That creates an enforcement problem, McNulty said.

To control the developments, Lynnwood repealed an ordinance that had made city sewer service available to any development in an unincorporated area known as the Maple Precinct. Now, only developments that are in line with city codes qualify for sewer service, excluding further LDMR developments built in that area.

The developments are located in urban-growth areas the county expects the cities to someday annex. But the cities are balking at someday having to provide the sites with public services such as sewers, road work, fire protection and law enforcement.

In November, all cities in Snohomish County, through the city organization Snohomish County Tomorrow, asked the county to place a moratorium on the developments until regulations could be put in place to control them. Eight cities — Mill Creek, Lynnwood, Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace, Bothell, Brier, Woodway and Mukilteo — also passed moratorium requests individually.

But the county refused.

"The bottom line is there weren't enough votes for a moratorium," said County Council Chairman Dave Gossett. "I decided it was better to make the regulations than to work on a moratorium that wasn't going to go anywhere."

The cities then submitted to the county a draft set of regulations. But, said Paul Krauss, Lynnwood interim community director, two-thirds of the suggested regulations were dismissed by county staff members.

Karen Watkins of the county planning office said staff members met with developers, city representatives and fire representatives, and arrived as a "consensus list" of only those regulations all three groups agreed upon.

Last week, the County Council voted on amendments to the regulations submitted by the Snohomish-Island County Fire Commissioners Association, the cities, Gossett and the Master Builders Association, which had worked with the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs Association to develop their amendments.

In a series of unanimous votes, the council passed only the amendments submitted by the Master Builders Association in conjunction with the fire chiefs and by Gossett before enacting the regulations Monday. None of the cities' or fire commissioners' amendments were passed.

Gossett said the amended regulations now address all of the issues raised by the cities and commissioners, including requirements for additional parking, open space, sidewalks and lighting.

"We have made some major improvements in these developments," he said. He said differences among the cities', commissioners' and builders' amendments were mainly in the wording.

But city and some fire officials said the amendments don't go far enough. "It's extremely disappointing that the council couldn't find any amendment put forth by the cities ... that they could agree with," Lynnwood Mayor Don Gough said.

For example, the cities had requested that a public hearing be required for new developments. Because the developments are governed by state condominium laws, they don't require such a hearing and take about four to six months to be approved, Watkins said. A traditional subdivision takes 16 to 18 months, she said.

Developers have said that such a requirement would force home prices in Snohomish County still higher.

Ryan, the Mill Creek mayor pro tem, slammed the council's decision. "For them to have unanimous votes like this, it looks like a backroom deal and crooked politics," he said. "... They just sold out the county in favor of residential developers."

Several fire officials, including McNulty and District 1 Fire Commissioner James Kenny, speaking for the commission, expressed disappointment that sprinkler systems and 28-foot street widths — wide enough for firetruck access and parking on one side — had not been required.

But Fire Chief Gary Faucett of Lake Stevens, speaking for other chiefs, said he was pleased with changes in the regulations, including a mandatory 15-foot space between homes, longer driveways and more guest parking.

"It's not just the width of the road," said Pattison, of the Master Builders. "It's how parking fits with that." He added, of the new regulations, "The people who took the time to work hard and come to compromises carried the day."

Mixed feelings

Don Lauer, 42, lives in Alderbrook Village, a development on 14th Avenue outside Everett. A police officer for Granite Falls, Lauer said he bought his house for $300,000 last September because his family needed a larger home and he liked the school district.

He said the house is "beautiful inside, and I really enjoy it." But he offered a mixed review of the development, saying he's not sure he would choose to move in there again.

On some days, Lauer said, "I can't even get my truck through here. The driveways are so short, people can't park in their driveways."

He added, "My concern is, because the houses are so close together, if one of the neighbors doesn't take care of their property, it could affect the property values of all the properties. It could become a slummy neighborhood pretty quickly."

Mukilteo City Council member Marco Liias said alternatives need to be found as an anticipated 1.5 million people move into the Puget Sound region in the next 20 years.

"Developments like we see going in really erode the public's confidence that we can effectively deal with that future," Liias said.

Naila Moreira: 425-745-7845 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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