Medina changes focus of house restrictions

MEDINA — City officials in this suburb of the super-rich have abandoned their bid to outlaw the construction of giant homes.

The city has shelved proposed regulations that could have cramped the plans of people such as Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos and Costco Wholesale co-founder Jeffrey Brotman.

Instead, the effort to restrict the spread of outsized homes has shifted to requiring more space between the edge of a property and the house. Those limits are more likely to affect owners of midsize properties, rather than sprawling estates.

"The intent was to make sure that on an ordinary lot, a huge house that ran up to the edges wasn't built," City Councilman Drew Blazey said.

The new regulations, if approved by the council, would represent a victory for owners of some of the city's largest properties, who have paid lawyers to steadily lobby city officials.

The City Council will hold a public hearing about the regulations at its Monday meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. at Medina City Hall.

Richard Wilson, an attorney following the issue for Brotman, welcomed the city's responsiveness to concerns that earlier plans were draconian. Brotman has filed a building-permit application with the city to build a home on his 3-acre property.

"They did listen and they have changed direction from where they started, which is not always easy to do," Wilson said. "I give them a lot of credit for being willing to rethink the issue."

The effort to rein in construction of so-called "mega-mansions" emerged amid the building spree of the last decade.

People found themselves living near palatial homes that took years to build and required construction cranes normally reserved for industrial sites. Bill Gates moved into a 48,000-square-foot spread and former Microsoft President Jon Shirley ordered a 23,000-square-foot home.

Complaints from neighbors of the Shirleys' about the prolonged construction highlighted concerns about the size of the homes and the accompanying dump trucks, dust and noise.

The city in 2001 imposed a moratorium on new homes bigger than 13,500 square feet while it tackled the matter. That moratorium remains in effect pending a decision on the current proposal.

A previous version of the regulations, which the council considered in 2002, would have banned homes as big as the Gates or Shirley residences. For example, a house on a 2-1/2-acre parcel could cover 14,100 square feet under the old regulations. The limits would have cut that to as little as 6,600 square feet.

At the same time, the proposed regulations would have increased the size of homes allowed on midsize lots of between 1/3 and 2/3 of an acre.

The regulations now before the City Council would keep past size limits largely untouched for the largest land holdings and smaller properties.

City officials concluded that house size wasn't the chief problem on the largest estates, Blazey said.

"It would be hard to build an out-of-scale house on something like that. So we had to be very careful that we address the real problem, which is too big a house on too small a lot," he said.

Instead, the council is considering requiring more extensive plans to limit the noise, traffic and duration of major projects.

In the future, City Manager Doug Schulze said, the city will also draft regulations requiring plans for major homes to undergo more scrutiny by city officials and neighbors.

Owners of medium-size lots stand to lose the most with the shift from one proposal to another.

The new version before the council includes stiffer setback requirements. Now, landowners with property zoned R-16 can build a house within 10 feet of the property line separating their land from their neighbor. The regulations now under consideration would change the limit to either 10 feet or 15 percent of the property's width, whichever is greater.

The proposal would also limit the size of second or third stories to 75 percent of the ground floor for houses 25 feet or taller.

The new plan has earned mixed reviews.

Medina resident Ron Santi, in a letter to the city, questioned why regulations initially targeting a few "notorious" projects had "evolved into a dragnet of many lots that are merely larger than average."

He charged the new regulations would unfairly penalize people who haven't built-out their property yet, and that new setback requirements would punish people with with wide lots or standard rectangle-shaped lots.

But Ray and Mary Waldmann praised the new regulations. The two said they live next door to a small house on a corner lot they expect to be sold, because the owner died. They worry it will be replaced with a big two-story house, something they have watched happen elsewhere in the city.

"We've been appalled by the number of huge houses built cheek by jowl," they wrote in a letter to the council.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com.