LFP Conservation Cluster Housing -- Citizen’s Voices

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Mike Dee, chair of the Citizens' Commission
addresses the crowd at the May 1st meeting
Photo by Steven H. Robinson

By Donna Hawkey

A civil and thoughtful conversation took place between residents of Lake Forest Park (LFP) and a local LFP real estate developer/builder about the subject of Conservation Cluster or Cottage Housing on May 1, 2018.

The open discussion event was sponsored by the LFP Citizen’s Commission and held at the Third Place Commons stage area in Town Center, Lake Forest Park.

The conversation was graciously led by Brian Highberger of Upright Homes, the Lake Forest Park developer of the Bell Homes cluster proposal, who said that the “only bad thing about this type of housing is its name.” Indeed, not all residents buy into that, but those that do believe in this statement were represented as well during this all citizen-run meeting.

One resident spoke about just saying “No” to increased density and remain true to the City’s founding intent of keeping the LFP land and residential homes on large wooded lots to preserve the trees, the wildlife corridors and a more peaceful quality of life. Some other questions emerged such as - would the City’s reputation be thought of as “snobs” if residents rejected concepts to increase density capabilities? Others wondered why aren’t Mercer Island or Laurelhurst embracing cluster housing? And some brought concerns about how newly built homes could impact future property tax increases and current home values.

Can the residents just say “no” about other’s land usage rights or tell someone exactly how to design their development- is that even feasible to do? Another resident said “we can’t say no to everything,” and LFP residents need to do “our own soul searching” about this housing crisis issue.

Unless the residents can buy all the property that goes on the market, who can control what another person does when they choose to sell? City ordinances and policies and design standards can be in place to require a quality construction and protection of the land, but these can only go so far before they are fought in court by property owners. Residents also shared concerns about recent single-family development sites in LFP and how poorly some of them have turned out as developers are thought of as exploiting every ordinance they can.

As property and lots are sold in LFP, some older homes will continue to be torn down and new homes built. The cost of land and the creation of new homes are also exploited costs in today’s real estate trends, so that a multiple of single-family homes may have to be developed on newly purchased properties. The average price of a home in LFP is currently over $700,000, according to Highberger.

Highberger had intended to build three large single-family homes on this property but got caught up in the tree moratorium, and after that was revised, he could no longer use the land the way he intended. Conservation cluster housing was a recommendation to him as a way to recoup his investment.

Brian Highberger, Bell Homes builder
explains his project to the crowd
Photo by Steven H. Robinson
After Highberger heard about the conservation smaller homes idea, he got excited due to the housing needs in the region. He also remembered the many older LFP neighbors who had to leave the area due to no longer wanting to take care of an extensive property, and there were no small housing alternatives for them to move to. He plans to offer these 950 square foot units for approximately $400-450k. But concerns emerged about whether these type of units are appropriate for seniors or are still out of price ranges for many elders in LFP.

The Bell Home builder said he believes the seven realtors he talked with who stated to him that they did not think this type of cottage housing brings property values down – with an emphasis on - “as long as they are designed and well-built.”

He did acknowledge that the only way to confirm property values effect or no effect is to hire an independent consultant to prepare a report, but there is no crystal ball to the future. Also, there was concern that while the neighborhood surrounding the Bell conservation homes property values may not be impacted, the adjacent ones could be, according to some residents attending this meeting. The City of Shoreline had tried cluster housing around the year 2000. Those initial units were painted in very bright colors, so they did not fit into the surrounding area, and also their approach was a conventional cluster one that did not include any permanent tree/forested easement as a requirement to protect open land.

Real estate values are so high today but there is always uncertainty about the future of the economy. The irony is that the companies that are aiding in choking the area with growth today saved the region from the harder economic suffering that many other cities experienced during the recession of 2008. Home values in the Puget Sound area held up stronger than most other US cities because of the region's innovative technology sector and job opportunity marketplace.

Attendees asked questions and made comments
Photo by Steven H. Robinson

Also mentioned is that there is less clearcutting with the conservation housing approach as compared with single-family multi or more massive house building due to the “green” conservation easement requirement; 50% of the land must be designated as tree forested permanent easement land. And on that continuous piece of conservation easement land, more trees can be planted for future growth and sustainability of the tree canopy, so that too is the “green” part – this type of permanent easement land use can create a new circle of forest growth. However, does this strategy provide a smaller footprint overall in the land designated for the building of homes? Or do the recent tree and critical areas ordinance updates provide for the same environmental protection as the permanent cottage housing easement does?

Conservation cottage homes are also not low-income housing and especially in this current real estate market. Highberger said there is also a myth about developers or builders getting rich – the price of land, labor, and materials has skyrocketed and building homes come with a certain degree of risk as well. He has been working on this project for one year now and is not breaking ground yet. He is a small builder who completes only about three projects a year. He also has revised his original plan to include community concerns such as having 50% more parking than what is required by the current LFP Ordinance No 1150 and now is planning to build three duplexes and one single floor residence instead of several individual small homes. There will also be a common area such as the concepts behind co-housing for encouraging community development among the residents.

A previous post on the subject of conservation cluster housing is found HERE..

The LFP Citizens’ Commission meets every month on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday evenings from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at the Third Place Commons Stadler Conference room to discuss various community concerns and issues. Join these civic-minded volunteers for more lively and future discussions. The LFP Citizens’ Commission is not affiliated with the City of Lake Forest Park.



Anonymous,  May 9, 2018 at 8:35 PM  

Having known Brian H for over 30 years and completed several projects with him I can honestly say there is nobody more conscientious or community minded than Brian and Upright Construction. I am not sure how I feel about cottage home projects but given the state of housing in the Puget Sound, if I were going to support anyone doing it I sure would want it to be Brian. All we need to do is look around and see how Bothell has lapped Lake Forest Park and Kenmore is not far behind. Having a strong community does not mean large lots and the highest possible property value, it is about a diverse mix of people with strong values and a sense of community. Look at the homes at 145th and Bothell Way, I first was apprehensive about the 12 Degrees North project but now see it as a positive asset and an improvement to the run down Elks Club. Keep a positive mind and trust people who have LFPs best interest in mind like Brian and Upright! JH

Anonymous,  May 9, 2018 at 9:06 PM  

Thank you Donna for writing such an unbiased and informed article. Much appreciated to see all sides of the issue. Always good to have an educated opinion about an issue. Speaking as one who is 100% for cluster homes in LFP and the quality of Upright Construction.

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