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Fight over ‘missing middle’ continues after board invalidates Olympia’s infill housing regulations

The case for and against Olympia’s ‘missing middle’ housing changes

The changes allow more “missing middle” housing throughout Olympia, things like duplexes, triplexes, tiny homes and mother-in-law apartments.
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The changes allow more “missing middle” housing throughout Olympia, things like duplexes, triplexes, tiny homes and mother-in-law apartments.

A state board has invalidated Olympia’s development regulations aimed at promoting infill housing after finding the city violated state law related to the environment and growth and that the changes go against policies in Olympia’s comprehensive plan.

The changes, approved last year, allowed for more multifamily housing to be built in low-density neighborhoods, including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and courtyard apartments. This is referred to as “missing middle” housing since it falls between single-family homes and large apartment buildings.

Most of the early applications the city received were to build accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

In January, a group called Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Neighborhoods filed a petition for review with the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board. In March, it ruled the city did not thoroughly consider potential environmental impacts as required under the State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA.

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Last week, the board issued a second order in which it found the city failed to comply with the Growth Management Act by not anticipating impacts on the environment, public facilities and services.

It also agreed with petitioners that the changes fail to implement Olympia’s comprehensive plan, which calls for preserving “neighborhood character,” by increasing density and eliminating some off-street parking requirements.

Still, the board called the goal of infill housing “necessary, laudable and achievable,” noting Olympia is one of many cities that will have to “build in and up” to add housing while “avoiding sprawl and preserving our natural resource lands.”

The city plans to ask the board to reconsider its decision. It will argue newly-passed legislation going into effect this month removes the SEPA question along with the board’s authority to hear the case, said City Attorney Mark Barber.

He said city staff is looking into what the board’s decision means for new permit applications, adding he thinks those submitted before it was issued should proceed.

Judy Bardin, a member of the Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Neighborhoods, said her group wants to work with city staff on infill and density.

“It’s not a small proposition. This is throughout our low-density neighborhoods,” she said. “We really would like to work with the city and see how this can be done to create livable neighborhoods and do infill in a responsible way.”

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Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.
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