What Exactly Are the Development Rules on Mercer Island?

I keep coming back to the subject of development, especially when I drive by a new mega mansion looming over its neighbors, all the trees on the lot cut down.

And occasionally old growth trees are coming down via development and windstorms. That’s natural, but few young evergreens are growing up in neighborhoods. I fear in 50 years Mercer Island will be some shadeless, denuded LA-lookalike suburb. I exaggerate, but not by much (see Issaquah).
Not Mercer Island. Not even Issaquah. LA.

The Rate of Change

Let’s look at the data. A Redfin search shows that 195 new homes either are on the market now or were sold in the last three years. I’m defining a new home as one built in 2000 or later. That’s not complete data, and it doesn’t tell us how many megamansions were built and how many of those lots were all but clearcut. But net 200 homes isn’t a bad rate of development.

The Law

So what’s in place to retain the character of the Island?

  • The Mercer Island’s Comprehensive Plan provides for between 800-odd to 1,700-odd new homes. It says “Currently, the island is almost fully
    developed, consistent with the long term goals of maintaining a single family residential community within a unique physical setting (pg.3)… The City is committed to implementing policies aimed at preserving and enhancing the Island’s physical characteristics. Regulatory tools such as the Zoning Code, Subdivision Ordinance, Critical Lands Regulations, Shoreline Master Program, Tree Ordinance and Design Standards continue to serve as the underpinning for protection of environmental values.(pg. 7)”
  • Mercer Island has surface area restrictions, which means that development can cover a max of 40% of a lot (for flat lots). But you can get a permit for an exemption, and Jason notes in the comments on an earlier blog: “there are ways around square footage restrictions and many, many exceptions to the rules on impervious surfaces — with offsets and exempted uses, etc.” I don’t know how many surface area exemptions have been granted by permit.
  • For any major development, the Design Commission must approve the project according a defined process with citizen comment. Major development is typically large buildings (like the new Boys & Girls Club) and new development in the North Island Commercial Center.

Avoid Issaquah

Let’s be clear: I believe in property rights. People who own land should be able to do what they want with it, like build on it, within certain limits set by the community. I’m not against all development, or tearing down old homes to build new ones.

I just don’t want Mercer Island to look like Issaquah (sorry Issaquah):

issaquah-development-2 No trees, no style.

Photo credit: JannK for LA and youngster for Issaquah.


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