Residents prep for lawsuit over neighborhood storage site

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Residents of a Central Tacoma neighborhood are facing a lawsuit from a commercial developer over plans to build a four-story storage facility along South Lawrence Street.

The legal snafu involves a community covenant, similar to a modern-day Home Owners Association agreement that dates back to 1945. The covenant forbids anything but single-family homes in the neighborhood. It is a footnote on deeds that was all but forgotten until plans were already in motion for the 920-unit, self-storage center.

A developer wants to build a 120,560-square-foot storage and retail building on a one-acre site at the corner of South Lawrence and 19th Street that was cobbled together from a half dozen former residential lots, according to environmental review documents filed with the city. The facility would include 2,500 square feet of retail space as well as 1,350 square feet of leasing office and administrative space related to the self-storage operations that will also include 12 parking spaces. The immediate neighborhood is largely surrounded by single-family houses around the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.

The neighborhood is zoned for community commercial mixed use, which allows for storage facilities and limited retail operations like the one being proposed. It had been zoned for homes and duplexes until the zoning was changed in 2009, however, as a way to promote higher density projects while “buffering” neighborhoods from heavier-impact commercial uses.

“It is a huge jump to go from one side of single-family homes to this thing on the other,” neighbor and critic of the project Tobias Nitzsche said.

He and other residents worry that the facility will add to the neighborhood’s street parking troubles, cause traffic problems on what often becomes a single-lane road because of parked cars along the street, and a rise in crime. Others fear, and something planning documents also note, that the four-story building will block the morning sun for the church’s stained-glass windows.

“This property goes almost up to their property line,” Nitzsche said. “It is just too much. It is just too big for the neighborhood.”

Construction plans for the new facility chugged forward only to then hit a roadblock, however, when the development company found that the property was part of the decades-old community covenant that forbids commercial developments in the area. Any exemption of those rules requires a majority vote of the current owners of the properties listed on the residential agreement from 73 years ago. Many of them didn’t even notice the footnote mentioning the covenant on their deeds since it would require a paper search of decades-old documents.

Out went signature gathers to get approval for a waiver to begin construction. Not enough residents approved the waiver, so out came the lawyers.

The developer, Pacific Northwest Development LLC, is seeking a summary judgement to declare the covenant invalid because it was long forgotten and had been ignored several times, including with the construction of Gloria Dei in 1961 without a proper waiver from the covenant restrictions; the operation of one home as a bed and breakfast, which reportedly violates the prohibition of commercial uses; and some of the land being used to grow produce rather than for housing. The violations of the covenant’s rules in those cases, the legal argument goes, have changed the neighborhood and invalidates the 1945 agreement. The area has since seen the nearby construction of Allenmore Medical Center and Life Center’s church and school complex. The lawsuit also seeks attorney fees from any of the neighbors and property owners who object to the project.

The owners of the properties listed in the covenant were served with lawsuit notices in October. They voted to fight and has since formed the nonprofit Murry-March Neighborhood Association and launched a GoFundMe effort to raise $10,000 for their legal bills.

“Tearing down existing homes to put up a storage facility runs counter to the goals expressed by our city officials. Residents expressed their concerns as soon as they became aware,” the call for donations stated. “Unfortunately, city planners rubber-stamped this project, and the protective covenant is the only thing now keeping it from moving forward. …The developer was unsuccessful in getting neighborhood approval. Now, they have chosen to sue every homeowner and the church within the protective covenant in order to facilitate their plans. We are a neighborhood of hard-working, tax-paying citizens who have been invested in the neighborhood for decades and want to keep our neighborhood a safe, welcoming place to live and raise families.”

One logical question in all of this is where does the city fall in this legal scuffle. The quick answer is that it doesn’t fall anywhere. The self-storage facility would be allowed in the neighborhood under the current zoning rules. But the existence of a privately negotiated community covenant that dates back to World War II is something city planners don’t come across all that often.

“I didn’t even know this (the lawsuit) was happening until a week and a half ago,” Principal Planner Shirley Schultz said, noting that zoning and permit decisions don’t generally dive into private-party restrictions like community covenants or homeowner association agreements that would come for title reviews when a property changes hands.

“It’s a private matter,” she said.

A trial on the covenant debate is set for next fall.

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