UW Professor Takes Landmark Property Case to State’s Highest Court

Steve CalandrilloOn Feb. 27, Associate Professor Steve Calandrillo and his wife, Chryssa Deliganis, presented oral arguments on behalf of a group of homeowners before the Washington State Supreme Court in the landmark case of Viking Properties, Inc. v. Holm et al. In 2004, Viking Properties sued the homeowners to break private covenant restrictions created by W. E. Boeing in 1938. The covenant restrictions limit development in a Shoreline, Wash. subdivision by permitting only one single family home per half acre.

“If the highest court rules in favor of the developer, the rights of tens of thousands of unsuspecting Washington homeowners whose properties are subject to restrictive covenants are at stake,” said Calandrillo. “The Shoreline homeowners involved in this case are ordinary people, and have relied on the restrictive covenant for decades in the way they have developed their land and in the kind of neighborhood they sought to create.”

Viking argued last year that Washington’s Growth Management Act, which was passed in 1990, overrides private covenants and mandates greater density development to contain urban sprawl. King County Superior Court Judge Douglas McBroom agreed with Viking, holding that all property in urban and suburban areas must be developed at a minimum of four houses per acre, regardless of private contracts that predate this requirement. He further supported his decision that the covenant is invalid, because it contains an illegal racial exclusion clause.

If the state’s Supreme Court confirms the decision, it effectively means the destruction of such venerable Seattle neighborhoods as The Highlands and nearby Innis Arden that are currently protected by covenants limiting developments. According to Calandrillo, illegal racial covenants were widely used during the early part of the 20th century throughout the United States, and the practice was even encouraged by the Federal Housing Administration, which would not guarantee loans in racially diverse neighborhoods. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such covenants unconstitutional in 1948—and homeowners, title insurers and real estate agents view the restrictions as null and void—the offensive language often remains. The superior court’s ruling could potentially change that by completely invalidating covenants with racial constraints, instead of disallowing the racial restrictions but allowing the rest of the covenant to stand.

Because the case raises fundamental questions of interest to many Washington citizens, the state’s highest court took the rare step of granting direct review of the lower court’s decision. Professor Emeritus William Stoebuck, a pre-eminent property law expert and author of many books, filed an amicus brief on behalf of the homeowners. In an unusual twist, Futurewise (formerly 1000 Friends of Washington)—a Seattle-based citizen and environmental advocacy group focused on growth management—is backing the developer, Viking Properties. A ruling is expected in late spring or summer.