Filling Gaps in your City’s Streetscape
Your city likely has locations where undeveloped lots are platted, or just exist, without the full range of improvements that are required in today's subdivisions – and now you have folks who want to build on these lots. A likely scenario is that the street serving those lots was once a rural two-lane road without sidewalks, curb and gutter, or storm drains, or that city ordinances at the time were much more lenient in terms of required plat improvements. 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, 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 businesses already, 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 and mesh them with its own ordinances. Some of these tools include street latecomer agreements under chapter 35.72 RCW, a set of sidewalk statutes, local improvement districts, and grants and loans.
Cities and towns have authority under their planning, zoning, and subdivision statutes to require basic levels of streetscape improvements as a condition of building permit issuance. A city or town may require road widening, storm drainage, curb and gutter, planting strips, and sidewalks - all in conformance with current design standards.
Note: The scope of this blog is limited to building permits for individual lots and not short plats and subdivisions.
Level of Required Improvements
A review of typical city code sections shows that 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 city must define its own level of required improvements, which may vary within given areas of the city. Some factors to be considered:
- The 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.
- City of East Wenatchee refers to its Functional Classification Map which in turn shows minimum right of way widths with corresponding typical street sections.
- Whether the ultimate street will be higher or lower than the existing street.
- Method of storm drainage collection.
- Utility locations, existing and proposed.
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).
- Have the property owner waive their right to protest against formation of a local improvement district.
- Forming a local improvement district.
- Waiving or deferring all or some requirements or granting a variance to the standards.
- Kent’s code says, “The director may allow the developer to defer the construction of portions of the required infrastructure improvements where such improvements will result in only partial structures, where anticipated future development and/or planned city public works projects will result in more complete and logical systems, and where such deferral is otherwise in the public interest.”
- Constructing the improvements (arterial streets primarily) with city and/or grant funds.
Selected, applicable municipal code sections are listed as follows:
- Puyallup Municipal Code Sec. 11.08.120 -160
- Marysville Municipal Code Sec. 12.02A.090-120
- Des Moines Municipal Code Ch. 12.40
- Wenatchee Municipal Code Sec. 7.22.020
- East Wenatchee Municipal Code Ch. 15.48
- Kent Municipal Code Ch. 6.02
- Port Angeles Municipal Code Sec. 14.01.115
Photo courtesy of John Michlig.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.