City officials simplify zoning codes

January 27, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Changes make code more property-owner friendly


The Issaquah City Council unanimously approved changes to the city’s zoning codes involving nonconforming uses Jan. 20.Nonconforming situations are land uses or developments that do not comply with the current zoning codes, but are still considered legal. A specific site may be nonconforming because it contains either a nonconforming use, residential density, development or combination of these.

Such situations have grandfathered rights, meaning they are allowed when established and maintained over time, said James Matthews, a city senior planner.

For instance, a building that was built 20 years ago in Issaquah but was not incorporated into the city at that time would have been subject to codes by King County. Now that the city has incorporated that area, the building may not conform to the city’s codes and is therefore a grandfathered nonconforming use.

Council members requested a review of the nonconforming sections of the land use code as part of the 2008 land use code amendments.

The code amendments do several things, like simplify several nonconforming code sections; make the codes more consistent with those of surrounding cities; distinguish differences between reconstructions and redevelopment; provide relief for property owners; clarify nonconforming rights attributed to vacant sites; and assist continued economic relief for businesses in Olde Town by clarifying nonconforming parking situations there.

Under the old codes, an owner of a nonconforming building couldn’t make repairs amounting to more than 25 percent of the property’s value each year. If they did, they may have triggered amendments requiring them to bring the building into full compliance even if they didn’t have the money to do so.

The new amendments allow for general maintenance and repairs as needed.

The changes also support city officials’ desire to bring nonconforming uses into compliance, or closer compliance, if possible.

For instance, if a developer purchases a building that was a nonconforming use and tears it down to start over, they forfeit the rights for the previous nonconforming use and must develop the new building in full compliance with the city’s codes.

But if the developer only wants to renovate and/or reconstruct, they can still claim right to the nonconforming use. At that point, city officials would help the developer mitigate the nonconforming use by finding ways he or she can come into closer conformity to the city’s code.

If that developer added 10 percent onto the floor plan, the city officials would perhaps have that developer add additional landscape to the parking lot to bring it into closer compliance with the city’s codes.

How much a building or site changes from its original state depends on how much mitigation city officials would ask of the developer.

The problem city officials encountered previously was developers who would tear a building down but still try to claim the site’s original nonconforming use, even though a new building was going to stand in its place, Matthews said.

By claiming a nonconforming use, the developer might try to avoid using green building materials or coming in line with the city’s stringent impervious surface and landscaping codes.

It isn’t just buildings that are nonconforming, Matthews said. It can also be the land or the use of that land they sit on.

Another common occurrence is buildings that don’t conform to the city’s critical areas buffers, like old buildings right next to Issaquah Creek. Today, buildings must be built a certain distance from the creek to protect its habitat. When the city was first developing, that wasn’t the case.

City officials had incorporated a review of nonconforming policy sections pertaining to critical area buffers, but decided to separate those issues from these amendments due to their complexity.

Discussions regarding critical area buffers and nonconforming uses are ongoing; more amendments are possibly on the way.

“I commend the staff,” Council President Maureen McCarry said. “This is an extraordinary amount of work to look at the provisions in our nonconforming use policies, look at other cities and get in line with what nonconforming use means in various situations. What this does is determine our nonconforming uses and work toward conformity.”

Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or Reporter Jim Feehan contributed to this story. Comment on this story at

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