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Incentives for Historic Properties in Seattle

Seattle offers incentives to landmark property owners including zoning and building code relief & the special tax valuation program.

Zoning Code Relief

For a designated landmark, the Director of the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) may authorize a use not otherwise permitted in a certain zone. This provision provides flexibility of use to encourage the preservation and use of historic buildings.

Administrative Conditional Uses (SMC Sections 23.44.026, 23.45.124, and 23.47.004) authorize, under certain circumstances, uses in a designated landmark that are not otherwise permitted in the zone in which the landmark is located. The DPD Director may also waive or modify standards for open space, setbacks, width and depth limits for screening, and landscaping for designated landmark structures or within a landmark or special review district (SMC 23.47.027). In addition, parking exceptions for landmark structures are available on an application basis (SMC 23.54.020).

In order to be considered for an exception, an application must be filed with DPD. Approval is subject to certain development standards that include approval by the appropriate historic preservation board or the Director of the Department of Neighborhoods.

Building Code Relief

The Seattle Building Code, adopted by the City Council to accompany the Uniform Building Code, allows the DPD Director to modify specific requirements of the building code for landmark buildings. The Director has the discretion to request alternate requirements that will result in a reasonable degree of safety to the public and building occupants. The building code requires that, when there is a conflict between a general requirement and a specific one, the specific requirement applies. This gives the DPD Director discretion to modify more stringent code requirements.

Incentives for Downtown Landmarks

The Downtown Zoning Chapter of the Land Use and Zoning Code addresses historic preservation through several mechanisms (SMC 23.49).

To discourage the demolition of Landmarks, projects that cause the destruction of any designated features of a Landmark structure, unless authorized by the Landmarks Preservation Board, are prohibited from gaining additional floor area through the use of zoning incentives such as floor area bonuses or the transfer of development rights (SMC 23.49.070).

To provide an incentive for Landmark preservation, developers can purchase and transfer unused development rights from sites in most downtown zones occupied by a designated Landmark structure. The transfer of development rights (TDR) from a Landmark structure is one of a limited number of options available to a developer for gaining a portion of the total floor area that can only be added to the project through the prescribed use of floor area bonuses or TDR. To facilitate the use of Landmark TDR, the City is authorized to operate a TDR bank, where development rights purchased from Landmark sites can be "banked" and sold to developers as needed. Use of Landmark TDR is further promoted by a requirement that a specified percentage of the floor area added to a project through TDR and bonus incentives must be gained through Landmark TDR if any such development rights are available in the City's Landmark TDR bank. The value of these development rights is negotiated between the owners of the sending and receiving lots. The transfer of development right from the sending lot to the receiving lot lasts for the life of the property on the receiving lot SMC 23.49.014).

In the Downtown Retail Core zone (DRC), a list of 15 historic structures is included in the Code, any project seeking to increase height up to the maximum limit allowed in the zone must preserve the façade of the historic structure. If the structure is a City of Seattle landmark, the Landmarks Preservation Board (SMC 23.49.008) must approve any proposed modifications to controlled features.

Special Tax Valuation for Historic Properties

During its 1985 session, the Washington State Legislature passed a law allowing "special valuation" for certain historic properties. Prior to that law, owners rehabilitating historic buildings were subject to increased property taxes once the improvements were made. "Special valuation" revises the assessed value of a historic property, subtracting, for up to 10 years, those rehabilitation costs that are approved by the local review board.

For the purposes of the Special Valuation of Property Act, the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board acts as the Local Review Board (RCW 84.26). The primary benefit of the law is that, during the 10-year special valuation period, property taxes will not reflect substantial improvements made to the historic property.

Eligible properties, as defined by the Seattle City Council, are designated as landmarks subject to controls imposed by a designating ordinance or contributing buildings located within National Register or local historic districts. The property must have undergone an approved rehabilitation within the two years prior to the date of application and rehabilitation cost must equal or exceed 25% of the assessed value of the improvements, exclusive of land value, prior to rehabilitation. Expenditures are based on Qualified Rehabilitation Expenditures. "Qualified rehabilitation expenditures" are expenses chargeable to the project, including improvements made to the building within its original perimeter, architectural and engineering fees, permit and development fees, loan interest, state sales tax, and other expenses incurred during the rehabilitation period. Not included are costs associated with acquiring the property or enlarging the building. (Link to Eligibility document - attached to this disk)

Interested property owners must file an application by October 1 with the King County Department of Assessment after the rehabilitation work has been completed. The Assessor will transmit the application to the Landmarks Preservation Board for review. The Board will review and approve the application, confirming the cost of the rehabilitation and that rehabilitation complies with previous Board approval. Once approved, the property owner will sign an agreement with the Board for a 10-year period, during which time the property must be maintained in good condition. The owner must obtain approval from the Board prior to making improvements. If the property is sold, the new owner must sign the same agreement if the special valuation is to remain in effect.

Link to Statute, RCW 84.26

Link to WAC 254.20

Washington Heritage Register

The Washington Heritage Register (WHR) recognizes historic and cultural properties that are significant to communities and the state. A distinction between the National Register is that the WHR provides historic property advocates ready access to recognition and a historic designation without the lengthier review process required for National Register listing. Properties may be nominated directly to the Washington Heritage Register; however, a separate application to the nomination to the National Register is necessary. Properties nominated to the National Register automatically receive listing in the Washington Heritage Register.

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