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Public hearing slated on "vesting" ordinance

May 24 2006

By Scott Rasmussen
Islands Sounder

San Juan County, WA - It may be hard to believe. But there's finally a set of guest house rules that no one seems to hate.

About 50 local property owners would be able to build a second home on a single lot in spite of zoning and density restrictions under a "vesting" ordinance that's ready to be put to the test. Endorsed by the San Juan County Council May 16, the proposal is in the pipeline and awaiting a public hearing.

By design, the ordinance targets property owners who had built a modest home of 1,000 square feet or less in anticipation of building a "main" residence later and converting the original into a guest house. In general, it would retroactively "vest" the right to build a primary residence for those who had submitted an application for a free-standing guest house between Nov. 30, 1991 and Nov. 30, 2000. If adopted, the ordinance would expire in five years.

Meanwhile, about 35 would-be beneficiaries are party to a lawsuit challenging the county's decision not to grant them a permit for a second home. The suit was filed last summer in San Juan County Superior Court.

Friday Harbor attorney Stephanie O'Day said seven of her clients' plans are in limbo largely because of the long-standing ban on guest house construction and the lack of local vesting rules. Though not perfect, the proposal would help six of the seven, she said.

"I think it's a workable solution for most people," O'Day said.

Councilman Kevin Ranker believes up to 70 property owners might fall under the ordinance. He said it's a solution for those whose plans have been derailed by the issue of "double density" and the long-standing ban on free-standing guest houses. In addition, he noted, the county -- on advice of the prosecuting attorney -- stopped issuing permits last summer regardless of whether a property owner had legitimate plans to build a second home prior to November 2000.

"All we're trying to do is remedy that situation," said Ranker, who helped craft the proposal.

The proposed ordinance has been sent to local, federal and state agencies, including the Washington Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development. The date of the public hearing will depend on timing and the content of their response; CTED has 60 days in which provide input.

The vesting ordinance is distinct from a new set of proposed rules on guest house construction, which were endorsed by the council three weeks ago. Those rules, as proposed, apply countywide and strictly limit the number of new free-standing guest houses that would be allowed in rural and resource lands each year.

Friends of the San Juans Executive Director Stephanie Buffum said the vesting ordinance is a matter of fairness, and one the local environmental advocacy group supports. She believes the county, which based its policy on the prosecutor's opinion of a ruling by the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, overreacted in denying permits to those with vested rights.

"Friends has always maintained that those people have vested rights and should have the ability to build their main home," Buffum said. "It's the fairness piece and a counterbalance to the new guest house legislation."

Community Development and Planning Director Ron Hendrickson said the vesting ordinance would not be the subject of a Hearings Board review unless it is challenged. In addition, he said the new set of proposed rules allow a small number of secondary homes to be converted into guest houses. It's an option for those who don't qualify under the vesting ordinance, he said.


Court grants 90-day "stay" on guest house verdict

May 24 2006

County Reporter, Islands Sounder

San Juan County will have another 90 days before the state Court of Appeals weighs in on the long-running dispute over local guest house rules.

The appellate court on May 9 agreed to withhold its decision on the case made previously by the county in defense of its original, though embattled, guest house rules until July 31. Repeatedly rejected by the Western Washington Growth Management Board and two Thurston County Superior Court judges, those rules would have allowed most property owners in rural and resource lands to build a free-standing guest house despite density restrictions.

It's the second "stay" granted by the appellate court at the county's request. But it was half the 180 days which the county had sought the second time around. County Councilman Kevin Ranker believes there's sufficient time in which to get a new set of guest house rules on the books before the appellate court issues its verdict.

"This is great news," Ranker said. "(The court's) decision will give us a bit more time to develop a local solution that meets our local needs."

A public hearing on a new set of rules -- endorsed last week by the council -- is scheduled for June 6. Any new guest house rules would need the Hearings Board's approval before they could go into effect.

The new rules would allow a limited number of detached accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built each year in rural and resource lands. However, free-standing guest houses would be prohibited on parcels of less than one acre and on shoreline lots of less than five. They would need to be located within 100 feet of the main residence and would be excluded from being rented on a short-term basis, 30 days or less.

In a related decision, the appellate court agreed to hear arguments as to why it shouldn't grant the county's request for an additional delay. The court would rule on motions filed by Los Angles-based attorneys and Orcas Island property owners Timothy Blanchard and Margaret Manning and by Clallam County following the July 31 deadline.

According to Clallam County, a ruling on the San Juan County case would help settle the often competing priorities in state planning guidelines of encouraging affordable housing and preventing sprawl. Manning and Blanchard have argued that a recent decision by the state Supreme Court affords counties "significant discretion" in balancing state planning priorities and in tailoring them to fit the local landscape.

But Ranker maintains the new set of guest house rules can satisfy local demand for free-standing guest houses and planning guidelines enforced by the Hearings Board. On the other hand, he said, a severe ruling from the appellate court could erase any chance the county has in allowing free-standing ADUs in rural and resource lands.

“While there are no guarantees with either route, I still believe we have a better chance of allowing detached ADU’s through a local solution, than through the court," Ranker said. "But it's wise to keep both doors open; (the) Court decision does just that.”


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