New Court Opinion Limits the Availability of Boundary Line Adjustments in Unincorporated King County

A new Division One Court of Appeal’s decision, Hollywood Hill Neighbors v. King County, has impacted the availability of the boundary line adjustment process for many parcels in unincorporated King County.

A boundary line adjustment (BLA), referred to as lot line adjustment in some jurisdictions, allows property owners to alter the legal boundaries of two or more contiguous parcels without having to comply with a formal subdivision under Chapter 58.17 RCW. While an exception to subdivision, BLAs still can be a lengthy and expensive process, yet often the only option for property owners to reform their parcels into shapes and sizes that comply with the dimensional requirements necessary for a planned development. Developers have historically purchased multi-parcel properties in expectation of completing BLAs to add development potential and value.

Under State law, a BLA, as opposed to a subdivision, is available if the alteration will “not create any additional lot, tract, parcel, site, or division nor create any lot, tract, parcel, site, or division which contains insufficient area and dimension to meet minimum requirements for width and area for a building site.” RCW 58.17.040(6). Similar language is incorporated in King County Code (the “Code”): “A boundary line adjustment proposal shall not: 1. Result in the creation of an additional lot or the creation of more than one additional building site; 2. Result in a lot that does not qualify as a building site pursuant to this title . . .” KCC 19A.28.020.D.2.

The phrase “building site” is not defined by statute; however, the Code defines “building site,” as, (a) “Capable of being developed under current federal, state, and local statutes, including zoning and use provisions, dimensional standards, minimum lot area, minimum lot area for construction, minimum lot width, shoreline master program provisions, critical area provisions and health and safety provisions;” or (b) “Currently legally developed.”  KCC 19A.04.060.

For years, King County had interpreted the Code as not requiring an undeveloped parcel subject to a BLA to comply with the current zoning area requirement for the zone in which the parcel was located.  Its reasoning was that, because the parcel already existed, and was already smaller than the zoning requirement, the BLA did not create nor result in a parcel that failed to meet the zoning area requirement. With respect to a parcel’s total area after a BLA, the County only required that the parcel meet the current construction area requirement.  This is significant because the construction area requirement is usually much smaller than the zoning area requirement. For example, in a King County RA-5 zone, the zoning area requirement for a parcel is 3.75 acres (approximately 160,000 square feet), but the construction area requirement is only 5,000 square feet.

The County’s interpretation had practical merit because many existing parcels in a given zone are much smaller than the zoning area requirement, and it likely was not the Code drafters’ intent to deprive these existing parcels of boundary adjustment; however, the Court disagreed with the County’s interpretation.

The Court held that the plain language of the Code means that an undeveloped parcel subject to a BLA must meet the current zoning area requirements after the BLA because, if it does not, then the BLA has resulted in a parcel that does not meet the Code’s definition of “building site,” which the Code specifically prohibits.  See Hollywood Hill Neighbors, No. 83790-7-I, 2023 WL 3301988 (Wash. Ct. App. May 8, 2023).

How Hollywood Hill Neighbors is Being Used

While Hollywood Hill Neighbors is an unpublished opinion, and therefore technically not binding precedent, we understand King County has shifted to using the Court’s opinion for its interpretation of the Code, and it is denying BLA applications that do not comply with the Court’s interpretation. Additionally, Hollywood Hill Neighbors gives a new argument to challengers of a pending BLA.

King County Could Eliminate the Zoning Area Requirement for BLAs

Chapter 58.17 RCW does not define nor require local jurisdictions adopt any specific definition of “building site.”  Nothing in Hollywood Hill Neighbors suggests that King County could not simply amend its code to exclude zoning provisions from its definition of “building site.”  King County should have the authority to amend its definition of “building site” through its standard code amendment procedures, but we have not seen any evidence that the County intends to do so.

We will keep an eye out for further movement on this topic. If you have concerns about your or your client’s boundary line adjustment meeting applicable code requirements, give the attorneys at Montgomery Purdue, such as Inger Brockman or Nate Close, a call.

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