The City of Mercer Island's September 2017 Code Amendments

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Game-Changing Government Policies & Drivers

By William Hillis

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William Hillis

Broker & Research Editor, Realogics Sotheby's International Realty

"The same approach to development need not apply in every community." 


Prompted by complaints from residents, the City Council of Mercer Island acted on 19 September 2017 to preserve views and the character of Island neighborhoods. Among other provisions, their code amendments restrict the buildable footprint to 40 percent of each lot, reduce allowable height from 35’ to 30’, increase side setbacks to 17 percent for wider lots, and require that 30 percent of large trees be preserved on developed lots.


As the Seattle Times reported, Mayor Bruce Bassett and City planning manager Evan Maxim "said the city tried to strike a balance between critics of the changes and those who wanted to limit home sizes even more. Officials will be reviewing the effects of the changes every few months … Carolyn Boatsman, one resident pushing for the changes, said she was glad the house sizes were reduced, but did not think the council went far enough, particularly on height limits.”

Concern remains that the more urbanized cities on the Eastside, such as Bellevue, lack any comparable restrictions; and that luxury buyers will be turned away from Mercer Island by these new rules. However, in other municipalities that still offer abundant waterfront access and a small-town vibe, residents may find in the new code provisions a model to be imitated. Those prospects may be highest in areas farthest from the urban centers.

The same approach to development need not apply in every community, though residents in most urbanizing neighborhoods may find that the Chinese idiom applies: the tree may prefer calm, but the wind will not stop (i.e., change is relentless). 

In the council decision’s wake, Marc Rousso, co-owner of homebuilder JayMarc, sounded a conciliatory note: “Big houses, small houses, lifers and newcomers, together our opportunity is to come together as one to keep the door open to growth and vibrancy.”

Impact: Local ordinaces favoring preservation of views, foliage, and open space will spread among the outlying communities (e.g., the San Juan Islands, Kitsap County), but Mercer Island will remain an outlier in the Central Puget Sound corridor.