Sumner council pondering whether to extend design standards to individual homes

A bicyclist pedals by the development surrounding the Fred Meyer store and shops Friday in Sumner. The city’s proposed changes in design review guidelines are meant to keep small town’s Mayberry character without making it Disneyland.
A bicyclist pedals by the development surrounding the Fred Meyer store and shops Friday in Sumner. The city’s proposed changes in design review guidelines are meant to keep small town’s Mayberry character without making it Disneyland. dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

Sumner City Councilwoman Kathy Hayden sometimes has mixed feelings about imposing strict design standards on builders in the eastern Pierce County city.

“You always get some pushback from people who say the city is being too inflexible,” the former Sumner planning commissioner said. Even so, she says “it’s worth doing when you see how even the big-box stores like WinCo and Fred Meyer turned out.”

Those two large-scale stores, built in the last decade within the city boundaries, aren’t the slabsided concrete structures that get built in some communities. Prompted by the design rules, the Sumner stores include such architectural features as gabled roofs and copper topped towers.

Those design standards in one form or another have been in effect in Sumner for some two decades, but they haven’t applied to smaller projects, individual homes on in-fill lots and residential developments of fewer than 10 homes.

Now the city, led by its Planning Department and its appointed Design Review Commission, is considering extending those standards to cover virtually all new building within the city, including single-family homes.

The council and that citizens board are scheduled to meet May 23 in a study session to discuss updates to the design standards and extension of those standards to smaller projects.

Critical in that discussion, said Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow, will be creating a balance between useful regulation and design freedom.

“I don’t want to make Sumner a place where everything looks alike, but I want to prevent eyesores that don’t fit in an established neighborhood,” he said.

Melony Pederson, chairwoman of Sumner’s Design Review Board, seconded the mayor’s comment.

Sumner, with its tree-lined streets, well-groomed homes and modestly scaled downtown, has often been likened to the idyllic Mayberry in TV’s Andy Griffith Show, Pederson said. One of the objectives of the design standards is to maintain that archetypal small town ambiance without the artificial feel of the too-good-to-be-real Disneyland, she said.

But Pierce County home builders say complying with design standards comes at a price.

Kurt Wilson, chief operating officer for Puyallup’s Soundbuilt Homes, said complying with a government’s dictates can add $500 to $5,000 to the cost of building a mid-priced home in Pierce County.

“We have standard designs, but we have to hire an architect to modify those to meet the building design standards of each jurisdiction,” he said. In addition, there are added costs for building the features the design standards dictate.

Sumner’s standards favor turn-of-the-century architectural features such as front and side porches, extensive landscaping, hidden garages, varied rooflines and traditional materials such as brick, wood and stone.

The proposed standards would require distinctive architectural details on both the front and sides of the residence. Those include distinctive windows such as stained or leaded glass, dormers, bay windows, varied siding treatments, decorative doors, roof brackets and other detailing.

While the design standards encourage use of traditional elements, they also forbid or strongly discourage design elements that contrast strongly with the details of the existing traditional housing stock.

Among those incompatible elements, as defined by the design guidelines, are prominent garages larger than 50 percent of the residence front elevation, garages that are closer to the street than the home’s residential facade, horizontal or haphazardly placed windows, large blank facades, nontraditional materials such as mirrored windows, corrugated siding, concrete block and solid panel siding such as T1-11 plywood.

The guidelines dictate that a home’s windows be bordered by trim at least 3.5 inches wide and that the character-giving architectural elements be present not only on the building’s front side, but all around. The guidelines refer to homes that put their best faces to the street but leave the sides and back utilitarian and unadorned as “Hollywood facades” after the false fronts used on movie sets.

Different standards apply to commercial and industrial buildings. Those standards serve a like purpose, ensuring that larger buildings help create a welcoming streetscape and avoid monotonous elements such as long, windowless concrete walls, said Pederson.

While Sumner’s standards are fairly specific, they don’t cover design as broadly as Gig Harbor’s, perhaps the strictest community in Pierce County in setting design do’s and don’ts.

Jennifer Kester, Gig Harbor’s planning director, said those design standards originated two decades ago.

They address, for instance, paint colors, calling for base colors to be softer earthen tones with accent colors designed to complement, not contrast with the base colors. The guidelines specifically forbid the use of bright colors.

The city’s detailed manual addresses the mass of the buildings in relation to their neighboring structures, the kinds of railings and awnings allowed, the types of windows that can be used and dozens of other design topics. Those guidelines are so specific that they ban colonial-style divided-light windows in the town’s historic district in favor of larger panes of glass more typical of Northwest homes.

Kester believes the guidelines have served the city well. She points to the Gig Harbor North commercial development, which she says is less intrusive in the forested surroundings than a conventional shopping area.

Many national corporations, she said, hire local architects to modify their designs to conform with those design rules. Once in a great while, a company says it will go elsewhere rather than conform, she said.

Walgreen’s, for instance, initially said it would build somewhere other than Gig Harbor because the city wouldn’t permit the company’s premade design to be built. After a several month hiatus, the drug company returned and built a store that conformed to local rules.

“When you consider how long many of these buildings will be around, it pays to create a better design that will endure,” she said.

Builders say design features dictated by governmental rules can price homes out of the market in particular neighborhoods. One Spanaway development took eight years to sell out, Soundbuilt’s Wilson said, because the county required that the homes include alley garages. He said one tract near downtown Sumner remains undeveloped because design requirements make it too expensive.

“We believe that the market should decide what designs are built,” he said.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663