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Improvements Required Prior to Building Permit Issuance and Other Methods of Obtaining Streetscape Improvements

Introduction

Are there locations in your city or town where undeveloped lots are platted - or just exist - without the full range of improvements that are required in today's subdivisions? The most likely scenario is that the street serving those lots was a rural two-lane road without sidewalks, curb and gutter or storm drains. Sewer and water mains may or may not be present, but -normally - a house or business cannot be occupied without one or both of these. However, a house or business can be built and occupied without all the streetscape elements required in newer subdivisions.

A city or town which requires no streetscape improvements for undeveloped lots, yet wants relatively uniform standards for improvements throughout the city, will be continually frustrated by these pockets of "blight". On the other hand, requiring each undeveloped lot, without fail, to have half-street improvements, sidewalks, curb and gutter and storm drains may result in a haphazard pattern of improvements or may discourage infilling of vacant properties. A given block may have only one or two houses or businesses with full streetscape improvements. If , on this block most lots have houses or businessesalready, the potential for completing improvements through the permit process is nil. Or, if only sidewalks are required, where should they be located in relation to the existing street, vertically and horizontally?

How can a city or town orchestrate streetscape retrofits adjacent to undeveloped lots so that the improvements are - in fact - installed, but in a manner that is not haphazard and is cost-effective for both the city or town and adjacent property owners? There is no easy, step-by step process that all cities and towns can use. Each city or town must adapt the tools given to it by the legislature to its own style of doing things and mesh them with its own ordinances. The following sections of this report describe available legal and financing tools and how other cities and towns in Washington have dealt with these issues.

[Note: The scope of this 'white paper' is limited to building permits for individual lots and not short plats and subdivisions.]

Ordinances and Policies

Sample Municipal Code Sections

Cities and towns have broad statutory authority to require basic levels of streetscape improvements as a condition of building permit issuance. Theoretically, a city or town may require road widening, storm drainage, curb and gutter, planting strips and sidewalks - all in conformance with current design standards. Selected, applicable municipal code sections are listed as follows:

Level of Required Improvements

As noted in the sample code sections, the level of improvements required adjacent to a property before a building permit can be issued ranges from sidewalks only to full half-street improvements, including right-of-way dedication. Each community must define its own level of required improvements, which may vary within given areas of the city. Some factors to be considered:

  • General degree of existing building development
  • Level of existing streetscape improvements
  • Circumstances under which variances will be granted
  • Allowable alternatives to construction of improvements
  • Degree of certainty that improvements installed by the property owner will be in the right location at the right elevation for the ultimate roadway configuration

Overall Plans are Needed

Unless no, or very minimal, improvements will be required before a building permit is issued, the city must be able to respond quickly and accurately when the permittee asks for information on the location and height of required improvements. This means that the city must know:

  • Street classification (principal arterial, arterial, collector, local access) of each city street
  • Street configuration (number and width of lanes, median strip, planting strip, sidewalk width, right-of-way width, etc.) for each classification
  • Whether the ultimate street will be higher or lower than the existing street
  • Method of storm drainage collection
  • Utility locations, existing and proposed

Alternatives

There will be locations or circumstances where it does not make any sense to require improvement construction as a condition of building permit issuance for a single property. Or, it may make more sense to have a whole city block (or more) receive its improvements all at one time. Alternatives include:

  • Having the property owner construct all the street improvements in his/her block(or other geographical area) and establish a recovery contract under Chapter 35.72 RCW
  • Using the sidewalk statutes (Chapters 35.68, 35.69 and 35.70 RCW)
  • Using a waiver of protest against formation of a local improvement district
  • Forming a local improvement district
  • Waiving all or some requirements or granting a variance
  • Constructing the improvements (arterial streets primarily) with city and/or grant funds

Recovery Contracts

Chapter 35.72 RCW allows a city or town to enter into a 'recovery contract' or "latecomers agreement" with any property owner to provide for reimbursement for street improvements installed by the property owner which also benefit other properties in the area. A city must, however, have an ordinance in place that requires the street improvements as a condition of property development. A city may, if it participates in the improvement, be reimbursed for its share of the improvement costs in proportion to the benefit received by the specific properties included in the recovery contract area. In 1997, the Legislature amended this statute to allow a county, city, or town to create an assessment reimbursement area on its own initiative, without the participation of a private property owner, finance the costs of the road or street improvements, and become the sole beneficiary of the reimbursements that are contributed.

Sidewalk Statutes

Three chapters, 35.68 RCW, 35.69 RCW and 35.70 RCW, provide cities and towns with the authority to require property owners abutting a public street to construct sidewalk improvements or, if the property owners refuse, to construct the improvements itself and assess the costs to them. Each of the statutes has a slightly different approach to the issue and must be read carefully to make sure all procedures particular to that statute have been followed.

Sidewalk Statute Summary
Statute Chapter 35.68 Chapter 35.69 Chapter 35.70
Applicability all cities or towns code cities,1st & 2nd class cities, or charter cities of equal population code cities or 2nd class cities and towns
Improvement Type construct, reconstruct & repair sidewalks, curbs and gutters sidewalk construction & reconstruction less than one block long any form of sidewalk construction
Remarks city may require improvements to be made or accomplish them through contract city requires improvements to be made and, if not, then accomplishes them through contract city requires improvements to be made and, if not, then accomplishes them through contract
All three statutes refer to limitations in RCW 35.69.020: a). an abutting property owner cannot be charged more than 50% of the valuation of the property, exclusive of improvements; b). an abutting property owner cannot be charged if action by city caused deterioration or damage or if the deterioration or damage was caused by failure of the city to enforce its ordinances.

Local Improvement Districts

Local Improvement Districts (LIDs) are a means of assisting property owners in financing needed capital improvements through the formation of special assessment districts. Special assessment districts allow improvements to be financed and paid for over a period of time through assessments on the benefiting properties. They are similar to assessment districts which are created under the sidewalk statutes, but are not as limited in the scope of improvements (type and geographical area) that can be accomplished, nor are they subject to the limitations of RCW 35.69.020. They are subject, however, to approval (or more correctly, non-protest) by the property owners, whereas the sidewalk statutes are not. Basic LID processes are in Chapters 35.43 RCW through 35.56 RCW.  Tacoma makes extensive use of LIDs to construct neighborhood improvements (contact Ralph K.Rodriquez at (253) 591-5522)..

Many cities allow (either outright or upon approval of a request) a property owner to sign a waiver of protest to the formation of a local improvement district which includes improvements that the property owner must make. Such waivers are subject to the limitations of RCW 35.43.182. The waiver must specify the improvements to be financed by the potential district, must state the effective term of the agreement (not to exceed 10 years) and must be recorded with the county auditor. MRSC has sample waiver of protest agreements from several cities. These are available upon request.

Grants and Loans

Cities and towns are eligible for a number of grant and loan programs for their share of the costs of participating with property owners in construction of improvements.  Look at the Infrastructure Assistance Coordinating Council (IACC).


Last Modified: January 08, 2016