Politics & Government

City aims to protect views, character of West Tacoma neighborhood

West Slope Neighborhood Coalition co-chairman Dean Wilson, from left, looks out at the neighborhood Wednesday with homeowners Nancy and Mike Fleming in the Narrowmoor neighborhood in Tacoma. The West Slope Neighborhood Coalition is seeking conservation district designation to protect what they consider the neighborhood’s character.
West Slope Neighborhood Coalition co-chairman Dean Wilson, from left, looks out at the neighborhood Wednesday with homeowners Nancy and Mike Fleming in the Narrowmoor neighborhood in Tacoma. The West Slope Neighborhood Coalition is seeking conservation district designation to protect what they consider the neighborhood’s character. Staff photographer

Mike and Nancy Fleming searched up and down the Puget Sound — from Steilacoom to Redondo Beach to Fox Island — to find the perfect home where they could one day retire.

They found it in a midcentury rambler in Tacoma’s Narrowmoor neighborhood, a collection of about 300 homes with commanding views of the Tacoma Narrows.

Today, the Flemings are part of a group of Narrowmoor homeowners pushing Tacoma officials to create a new conservation district they say would help preserve the character and views of the neighborhood they fell in love with nearly 30 years ago.

“We kept coming back to this area,” Mike Fleming, now 74, said of he and his wife’s home search. “It was a suburban feel in an urban environment.”

City of Tacoma staff are proposing a new conservation district in Narrowmoor, which includes several blocks west of Jackson Avenue between roughly Sixth Avenue and 19th Street.

Residents say that Narrowmoor’s terraced lots and low-slung homes that hug the hillside create a feeling of open space that is unique in Tacoma and worth protecting. The homes there are generally situated on lots that extend a full block front to back, with houses sited on the uppermost portion of the lot and backyards that slope westward, providing clear views of the water.

Members of the West Slope Neighborhood Coalition want to retain those block-long lots and restrict developers from building new homes in the open spaces that now comprise homeowners’ backyards. They also want to limit the height of new and remodeled homes to one story (with daylight basements allowed) to avoid impeding views.

The conservation district would establish those principles as design guidelines for the neighborhood and require homeowners and developers to seek the approval of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission if they want to demolish buildings, build new ones or make substantial additions to existing homes in the area.

Further development restrictions proposed under the conservation district would ensure that lots stay at least 60 feet wide and that homes take up no more than 25 percent of a lot.

Members of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission signed off on the proposed Narrowmoor conservation district this year. The city’s Planning Commission is considering the conservation district as part of several suggested updates to the city’s comprehensive plan, the document that governs land use in the city.

Other proposed updates to the city’s comprehensive plan would allow for more density in many Tacoma neighborhoods.

The planning commission will take public comment on the proposed changes, including the Narrowmoor conservation district proposal, at a meeting Wednesday.

‘HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT’

City officials say the neighborhood of mainly post-World War II buildings probably wouldn’t qualify as a historic district, a designation that comes with a slew of development restrictions, because a number of homes have been rebuilt or updated from their original midcentury styles. But it can qualify for the more modest protections of a conservation district, said Reuben McKnight, Tacoma’s historic preservation officer.

Unlike in a designated historic district, changes to exterior design elements, such as windows or moldings, wouldn’t trigger a design review process, McKnight said.

“The idea is you can’t freeze development in the neighborhood, but what you can do is adopt standards and guidelines that allow fill-in development that is appropriate to the neighborhood, meaning that the houses are situated consistent to the historical development pattern,” McKnight said.

‘NOT A LOT OF ROOM’

The Master Builders Association of Pierce County opposes the formation of the new conservation district, saying it would create unneeded hassle for developers and hinder Tacoma’s ability to accommodate population growth.

“One of the problems that Tacoma has is we’ve obviously restricted where you can build. There’s not a lot of room to grow. ... You’ve got to get creative,” said Jeremiah Lafranca, government relations director for the Master Builders Association of Pierce County.

Lafranca said requiring approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission also creates uncertainty for developers who must go through the process of having a public hearing on their proposals.

“The creation of this neighborhood conservation district as it is written has negative impacts on affordable housing, subdivision of lots and more just to satisfy the ‘not in my back yard’ philosophy of a contingent of the neighborhood residents,” the Master Builders Association said in a statement.

Lafranca added that the Narrowmoor neighborhood also has covenants in place that impose similar rules as the proposed conservation district.

But several Narrowmoor residents, including the Flemings, say enforcing those covenants has required neighbors to take each other to court in the past. And even if a judge rules in the neighbors’ favor, it might be too late to halt some parts of a building plan that violates the covenants, Nancy Fleming said.

Having the conservation district in place would address those kinds of problems before they need to go to court, said Dean Wilson, co-chairman of the West Slope Neighborhood Coalition.

“You would prevent all this legal entanglement, and all this consternation among neighbors,” Wilson said.

Planning Commission Public Hearing

Aug. 19 at 5 p.m., first floor of Tacoma Municipal Building, 747 Market St.

Written comments can be submitted to planning@cityoftacoma.org. The deadline is 5 p.m. Sept. 4.

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