Lots to figure out: County close to resolving old plat problems

Posted 9/28/22

Jefferson County commissioners are poised to pass a new ordinance that would clear the cloud of uncertainty over property lots that run afoul of the county’s zoning rules.

The county has …

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Lots to figure out: County close to resolving old plat problems


Jefferson County commissioners are poised to pass a new ordinance that would clear the cloud of uncertainty over property lots that run afoul of the county’s zoning rules.

The county has been under a moratorium since late last year on processing development applications for plats that existed before September 1971, when the county’s first platting ordinance was adopted.

County officials said many old plats weren’t big enough for homes on septic systems, and some were also constrained by environmentally sensitive features called “critical areas,” such as wetlands and steep slopes, that would also limit building.

With the concern that development of such old plats could also jeopardize the county’s rural character by allowing more dense, urban-style development, commissioners called a timeout last October on processing land-use permits on pre-1971 lots.

But with the moratorium set to expire in early October, commissioners are facing a tight deadline in resolving the legal status of such undeveloped properties.

Commissioners held a public hearing on the proposed “Legal Lot of Record” legislation Monday, which was kicked off by a detailed staff discussion of the proposed changes.

During the hearing following a presentation by county planners, some members of the public questioned how the new regulations would affect people who want to sell their land, or improve their existing properties.

Others worried about potential impacts to the creation of affordable housing. And some also said the current permitting process is already onerous, and commissioners were repeatedly asked to postpone a decision on the legislation because the county had done a poor job of alerting the public about the proposed code changes.

At the close of the session, which ran for more than five hours, commissioners said they were reluctant to extend the moratorium.

“We are up against some tough timelines here that we don’t have the luxury to really extend without some pretty serious ramifications,” said Commissioner Kate Dean.

Dean noted the complexity of resolving the question of legal lots, and the process proposed by the county that would clarify the procedures needed to determine whether a lot can accommodate a single-family residence.

The proposed regulations also include a “Reasonable Economic Use” process that would be used on properties that are constrained by wetlands, streams or rivers, flood-prone areas, and other issues, so property owners could determine what development would be allowed on their lots.

“No matter how much we talk about it, it’s very difficult for most people to understand — even those of us who have worked in it, and with it — for decades,” Dean said of the land-use rules.

She said she was focused on the big picture of the county’s future.

“I take very seriously our need to manage for growth appropriately, our need to protect resource lands, our need to protect rural lands,” Dean said.

“We’re at a really critical

inflection point right now in our understanding of climate change, in our understanding of potential in-migration as a result of climate change,” she added.

Dean said commissioners have a responsibility “to do this well and to do this right.”

She said she supported the adoption of the ordinance.

“We are a county that saw very little growth, while much of the Puget Sound region was paved over and sprawl took hold,” Dean said. “We didn’t have that kind of growth, and I think it provides a really unique opportunity to do things differently.”

Dean said concerns that the ordinance would directly impact affordable housing was “a little bit of a red herring.”

“But continuing to divide up and allow dispersed development in rural areas is an ecological disaster,” she added. “It increases car reliance, and I just can’t be a part of allowing that pattern of development to happen in Jefferson County so long as I have a say in it.”

Commissioner Greg Brotherton, however, said he was in favor of changes that would give property owners the assumption at the start that their existing lots are legal.

How property owners could develop their lands would be a separate question, he said.

“Seems like we’re putting the cart in front of the horse,” Brotherton said.

“I would much rather assume legal lots,” he said.

The proposed approach, Brotherton said, would create barriers on how people use their property.

It would restrict people’s ability to use nonconforming properties or older property lots, he said.

Brotherton suggested mimicking Clark County’s approach, which set 1969 as the starting year for lots to be recognized as legal, rather than Jefferson County’s benchmark of 1971.

Commissioner Heidi Eisenhour disagreed with the notion that the changes would create uncertainty, or that the county’s outreach efforts on the new legislation were lacking.

“I do think that the proposed changes make the development process more straightforward,” she said.

“I think this does make it more straightforward for applicants.”

“I agree with Kate. We need to do this right, but I feel like the what we’re doing with this process is much improved than what I’ve seen happen in the past,” Eisenhour added.

She said she wanted to have the legal lot issue resolved and not drag out the process.

“I’m not supportive of having another moratorium,” Eisenhour said.

Commissioners held off on a vote on the ordinance to allow Brotherton more time to consider the proposal.

The county is facing an adoption deadline of Oct. 4, and commissioners will continue their consideration of the proposed ordinance at their meeting Monday, Oct. 3.

Brotherton said he wasn’t looking for additional staff analysis of possible changes in the coming days.

“I can do a lot of soul searching and research on my own,” he said.