School Departures Advisory Committees

The departure process is established by the Seattle Land Use Code Section 23.79.002. The intent of the process is to allow for the construction, addition, and/or renovation of schools that do not necessarily meet all of the land use and zoning standards of the surrounding neighborhood.

About the Process

General Background

Seattle, unlike other jurisdictions, does not have a "School Zone". Instead, the City allows schools in all zones, subject to the development standards (setback, height, lot coverage, etc.) of the underlying zone. Since most schools are in residential neighborhoods and are often zoned "single family", this can present problems. Many existing school sites in Seattle were established years ago and do not meet the current zoning requirements. Additionally, older school buildings are much smaller than those now being built or planned. As a result, in most cases where a school is being renovated or expanded, it will not meet the underlying zoning requirements.

The land use code contains provisions whereby the Seattle School District can request exemption from the provisions of the land use code. They may request these exemptions or "departures" from many of the provisions of the code. However, the impacts of these exemptions fall disproportionately on those residents who reside or own property closest to the school.

In order to assure that the views of nearby neighbors of the school, and the surrounding community, are given weight in any City decision to allow departures from the zoning, a departure committee is formed primarily from nearby neighbors of the school. The purpose of the committee is to review the departures requested, listen to and solicit the views of their neighbors, and make a recommendation to the Director of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) concerning granting, denying, or conditioning any departures requested.

How the Process Works

Generally, the lifespan of a school departure advisory committee is approximately 30-90 days. The following are the typical steps in the process:

  1. Orientation Meeting - An orientation meeting to review the process with the committee will be held. This meeting will occur at the first public meeting, and a staff person from the Department of Neighborhoods (DON) will provide an overview of the role and responsibilities of the departure advisory committee.
  2. Public Meeting - The DON Director chairs and facilitates all meetings. Once the committee is formed and appointed by the Director, a public meeting is scheduled. At the first meeting the Seattle School District, with the architectural firm, presents the building design and improvements, the departures requested, and any rationale for the departures. After the presentation, the school departure committee must make a formal determination: 1) that the departures are minor, or 2) major.

In general, a departure may be considered minor only if the committee believes that additional public testimony is not likely to shed additional light on the subject and it is comfortable with making a decision and recommendations based on the information presented at the meeting. If minor, the committee must complete its review and recommendations within 30 days, and have at least one meeting.

If the committee decides that the requested departures are major in nature, then two additional public meetings must be scheduled over the succeeding 90 days in order to solicit additional public testimony, and to obtain additional information from the Seattle School District to help inform the committee's recommendations.

If the departures are considered minor, then the committee may proceed directly to a discussion and vote to grant the request with or without conditions. Any conditions recommended must be directly related to any impacts of the departure request. The DON staff will then write, on behalf of the committee, a draft report for review and approval by committee members. A second meeting may be called for review and approval of the draft report, or the report may be electronically transmitted for approval. If there is not a consensus, committee members not in agreement may write a minority report that becomes part of the committee report to DPD.

Before the committee makes its recommendations, the public is encouraged to testify concerning their general opinions on the departures and any conditions that might be reasonably put on granting the departures.

  • Decision on Departures - The committee report and recommendations are forwarded to the Director of the Department of Planning and Development, who has the sole responsibility for granting the departures as recommended by the school departure committee with or without conditions. The Director's decision is appealable to the Seattle Hearing Examiner.

See the Seattle Municipal Code for more detailed information on the major institution master plans.