Earlier this month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the City of Seattle’s ongoing defense of the Landmark Preservation Board and its decision to deny an application to build three large houses on the sloping front lawn of a designated, 1906 historic property known as the Satterlee House.
Although unsuccessful in their appeal of the board’s decision to a hearing examiner and at the trial court level, the property owners, William and Marilyn Conner, have continued to press forward in their effort to overturn the Board’s ruling, this time filing an appeal before the Washington Court of Appeals.
The Satterlee House, a three-story “Seattle Classic Box,” sits on the crest of a one-acre lot in West Seattle and faces towards the Puget Sound. The board rejected the Conners’ proposed design of the infill houses, concluding that their size and scale would adversely affect the unique features and characteristics of this landmark house.
With the help of a last minute motion by the Pacific Legal Foundation to participate in the case as an amicus, the Conners maintain that, under Hanna v. City of Chicago, the preservation board violated their rights by applying unconstitutionally vague standards in the review and denial of their application. Specifically, they complain that the city’s standards, as applied to them, were “subjective” rather than “objective” because they did not contain specific, measurable limits on the permissible size of their proposed houses.
In Hanna, the highly-publicized decision from last winter, the Illinois Appellate Court concluded that the criteria for designation of historic resources in Chicago’s ordinance were so vague that a person of common intelligence could not determine from the face of the ordinance whether a building or buildings may be deemed a landmark or historic district.
The National Trust’s brief discusses the widespread and important practice of using contextual -rather than prescriptive - standards in the review of proposed alterations and new construction on historic sites. It also explains why historic preservation does not lend itself to bright-line, formulaic rules, pointing to the 42 court decisions in 24 states and the District of Columbia that, in contrast to Hanna, have upheld preservation standards against vagueness challenges.
The Washington Court of Appeals has not yet ruled on the National Trust’s motion or the Pacific Legal Foundation’s request to participate in the Satterlee House lawsuit. Oral argument before the court is scheduled for June 10. Meanwhile, a petition for review of the Hanna decision, filed by the City of Chicago in March, is currently pending before the Illinois Supreme Court.
- Julia Miller
Julia Miller serves as special counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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