Couple's communal housing permits allowed with strict conditions

In late June Auburn's Hearing Examiner approved a Lea Hill couple's application for conditional use permits to house up to seven unrelated people in each of the two single-family homes they own in the Rainier Ridge subdivision north of Green River Community College.

But, as Phil Olbrechts wrote in his meticulously-worded decision, "subject" to such restrictive conditions that Shao Xia Zhu and her husband, Gary Kiefer, may no longer find their plans worth pursuing.

"This is an extremely difficult case," Olbrechts conceded.

Briefly, the conditions:

• Approve the Zhu-Kiefer applications for three years only;

• Require that the couple file yearly reports with the City detailing all complaints received and how they were resolved;

• Specify that at the end of the three-year period, the couple has to secure approval of another conditional use permit to keep operating, provided that that option is still available at the time;

• Specify that in a new application, the couple's yearly reports must provide needed information on the impacts of communal residences they operate;

• Approve the CUP only in this case, and require that the couple continue living in their current close proximity that they may continue their "exemplary near on-site supervision of the communal residences;"

• Require that the lease contain a provision mandating eviction of tenants for failing to comply with house rules;

• Specify that failure to comply with the conditions of approval will subject the CUP to revocation.

At the public hearing on the CUP May 28 at Auburn City Hall, neighbors of the communual residences argued that anything more than four unrelated people — here, college students — in a communal housing situation would run contrary to what they had worked with City leaders for months to achieve, and what City leaders signed off on when they approved the communual housing ordinance last September. The ordinance went into effect Jan. 1, 2014.

That evening, riled residents rated the City a fail for providing in the first public test of the ordinance an avenue for owners to house more than four persons. They went on to cite the dangers that such makeshift, tiny, non-permitted living spaces and their potential jerry-rigged electrical systems presented to the overabundance of students trying to squeeze into them. They also cited the detrimental effects of piles of garbage, parking issues, rampant jaywalking, reckless driving and noise on the value of their own properties.

In his decision, Olbrechts noted he had found land use court opinions from four other states that addressed conditional or special-use-permit applications for like housing arrangements, specifically for college sororities and fraternities. In each instance, however, he wrote, the courts had ruled that "community fears of noise, traffic and inadequate property maintenance were not enough to justify denial of the permits."

What distinguished the Zhu-Kiefer applications from those court cases, Olbrechts argued, was that the neighborhood testimony on May 28 was grounded on historical impacts of student housing in the neighborhood, as opposed to being mere speculation about what those impacts would be in the future.

"The testimony of the neighbors on these issues was completely uncontested. Most notably, the applicants at no point disputed the fact that the student housing in their neighborhood has significantly disrupted everyone's lives," Olbrechts wrote.

Even though the impacts of student housing in general were fairly clear, Olbrechts continued, "there is also strong evidence that the applicants are uniquely qualified and in a unique position to ensure that their proposed communal residences will not disrupt the neighborhood. They have operated a communal residence with an unknown number of students since 2006."

With the exception of one written comment, which declared that the communal residences had generated unspecified noise incidents, project opponents acknowledged that the couple had been responsible stewards of their operations, and did not disagree that Zhu-Kiefer had received no complaints over the conduct of their students, Olbrechts wrote.

"A primary reason the applicants have been successful in maintaining order on their properties is because they live on the same street as the rental properties and are a daily presence in the lives of the students by their involvement in the cleaning and maintenance of the homes, transporting the students on daily errands and sharing holiday meals with them. This level of adult supervision stands a good chance of preventing the type of impacts identified by project opponents," Olbrechts concluded.

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