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Debate on cluster homes heats up

"Have your sayThe Federal Way City Council will have a public hearing on cluster subdivisions at its Sept. 5 meeting. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall, 33530 First Way South. People can also submit written testimony before the meeting. For more information, call City Clerk Chris Green at 661-4070.----------------------With five applications in the planning pipeline, the Federal Way City Council is calling a temporary halt to additional cluster subdivisions while councilors study whether to toughen regulations.The Federal Way City Council will take comment on cluster subdivisions at the Sept. 5 council meeting. The council voted in July to start the 90-day moratorium clock.Cluster subdivisions feature houses with smaller-than-average lots, meaning residents live closer to their neighbors and usually have smaller backyards. Swaths of green space all the residents can use replace large backyards.Under cluster subdivision regulations, developers can reduce their lot sizes to a minimum of 3,600 square feet if they meet certain conditions, but most developers qualify for lot sizes of closer to 5,000 square feet, said Kathy McClung, the city's deputy director of Community Development Services. Lots in standard subdivisions are close to 7,200 square feet. The code is already tougher than those of other Puget Sound cities and King County, McClung said; council set a minimum lot size for the subdivisions in 1998. Blackberry Hill got in under the old ordinance, which has been in place since incorporation. Federal Way requires that developers set aside 15 percent of their gross land area as useable open space, whether it be a walking trail or a picnic area. Other cities don't include such a provision.Developers subtract the 15 percent - plus 20 percent for the space they would have needed for roads in a standard subdivision - from their total land before dividing it by the underlying zoning of the land to figure the total number of lots. To qualify to build a cluster subdivision, a developer must be building on a minimum of 2 acres, McClung said. Only one cluster subdivision - Blackberry Hill - had been built in Federal Way, but five others - Windswept, Colella Estates, Silverwood, Orchard Lane and Residential South - seek city approval. Because those developers submitted their applications before the council approved last month's moratorium, they won't be affected, McClung said. Usually developers request approval for cluster subdivisions in instances where wetlands render a portion of their property unuseable, - seek city approval. Because those developers submitted their applications before the council approved last month's moratorium, they won't be affected, McClung said. Usually developers request approval for cluster subdivisions in instances where wetlands render a portion of their property unuseable, McClung said. If developers can cluster houses together, they can often build the same number of homes on a piece of property as they would have if the wetlands weren't there.A lot of the property left to develop has sensitive areas on it. This is the best way a developer can get the most out of the property, she said. The other thing is not everybody wants a big house on a big lot anymore and this is one way to appeal to a certain market.In fact, in a Seattle Times article, Suzanna Britsch, president of Real Vision Research, which tracks housing trends in the area, called high-density development featuring the look of single-family homes the future of housing in King County, in light of state-mandated housing unit requirements.Of course, we're always interested in keeping up with our housing targets, McClung said. subdivisions worry some Not everybody finds the idea of cluster subdivisions so appealing. Some Federal Way neighbors of proposed subdivisions worry about increased crime and traffic, and decreased property values. Council members have received e-mails and phone calls from people troubled by the idea of cluster subdivisions. Those concerns alarmed Councilmember Phil Watkins enough to propose instigating the 90-day moratorium last month. He says cluster subdivisions are not integral to the city's plans for reaching the state's housing targets. The city risks repeating a mistake King County made when it oversaw Federal Way, Watkins said. The county approved the construction of apartments next to houses with no eye for the overall look.When we passed the cluster housing subdivision ordinance, there were some things we didn't think very carefully through, Watkins said. One of them is transitioning from high-density neighborhoods to low-density neighborhoods - one of the things we were critical about King County.Rob Foster says he was wary when he learned a cluster subdivision - Silverwood - was going to be developed in his neighborhood in South Federal Way.You hear clusters, to most people it sounds like you're shoving a lot of houses into a small area, Foster said.Foster says he's reassured himself the development would meet the city's code on cluster subdivisions and believes the developer, Novastar, has good intentions. But he remains concerned about the development's effect on traffic, classroom sizes and aesthetics. I still look at that proposed development at the place it's going into, the semirural nature of that area, aesthetically and everything, it doesn't fit it, he said.Other Silverwood neighbors share similar concerns. In fact, about 20 people have met several times with McClung to detail their worries, including water runoff, lowered property values and traffic problems.Mike Rutter is another concerned neighbor. He owns a little over 3 acres south of 356th Street in a quiet, little neighborhood that retains the look of Federal Way's rural past.Most neighbors he's talked to wouldn't mind a standard subdivison but do worry about the nature of a cluster subdivision - more people packed into less space.I don't know if it doesn't fit at all, I just know it doesn't fit down here, Rutter said. If you had a whole acre and had eight homes on an acre next to somebody who might have 1 or 2 acres, that doesn't necessarily make for good neighbors. It's almost like it's taking something that is designed for city living if you will and putting it in an area that's almost country living. Misconceptions are common, supporters saySupporters of cluster subdivisions say the developments can play key roles in helping cities meet their Growth Management Act housing goals and contend with increasingly tough environmental regulations that limit the amount of developable land. Under GMA regulations, Federal Way must plan for an additional 13,425 to 16,556 households by 2013.(Cities) have to be more efficient, said Tom Barghausen, the owner of Novastar Development, which is developing Silverwood. Instead of sprawling out into the county and rural areas to try to achieve their land use density goal, the cluster concept was adopted to meet that schedule.Most cities have recognized that and enacted relatively loose cluster subdivision codes without useable open space requirements, said De-en Lang, planning consultant for the Bothell-based Subdivision Management Inc. Federal Way is the only one going the other way, Lang said. The 15 percent open space is something that is fine, but when you insist they have to be useable, you're taking up the area that could be housing units.Both Barghausen and Lang dispute concerns that cluster subdivisions dramatically increase crime and traffic. They say additional houses squeezed into a cluster subdivision aren't likely to make an incremental difference in either.Lang says people will likely feel safer in a cluster subdivision.It's not so much yard to maintain and the closeness gives you a little more security, he said. If a stranger is walking around in your backyard, all the houses are so close (someone will see).They also say people's fears of low-income housing going in next to higher-income housing is unfounded; housing in cluster subdivisions costs as much, if not more, than that in standard subdivisions.Because of the economy, because of how expensive land is, I'm amazed at how expensive houses can be, and they're on 4,000 or 5,000 square feet and 10 feet apart, Barghausen said. That's very common.------------------Cluster subdivisions* Blackberry Hill: South 312th Street at Third Court South, 11 lots, all of them clustered, built several years ago, developed by Jan-Wes Homes, smallest lot is 2,900 square feet and the biggest is 5,000 square feet. * Windswept: Military Road and South 296th Street, seven lots, five of them clustered, application submitted in 1990, not built yet, developer Randy Lloyd.* Colella Estates: Dash Point Road and 31st Street, 93 lots, 47 clustered, application submitted in April 1999, not built yet, developer unknown.* Silverwood: Eighth Avenue South and South 360th Street, 70 lots, all clustered, application submitted in October 1998, not built yet, developer Novastar Development.* Orchard Lane: 12th Avenue Southwest and Southwest 344th Street, 50 lots, all clustered, application submitted in March 2000, not built yet, developer unknown.* Residential South: South 336th Street and 32nd Avenue South, 95 lots, all clustered, application submitted in 1999, not built yet, developer Quadrant. 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