The Seattle City Council is locked in a hot debate this week. In one corner, Council Member Heidi Wills says there's an important question of public versus private benefits. But Council Member Richard Conlin calls her concerns "much ado about nothing." The sparring council members sparked a 40-minute debate during a January 13 council meeting.

The debate focuses on a tiny sliver of land in Washington Park, a subsection of classy Madison Park located on the shores of Lake Washington due east of Capitol Hill. Tucked between two ritzy homes on 36th Avenue East at Mercer Street, the land in question is an 8,000-square-foot public lot with a view of the lake and a steep drop to Hillside Drive East below. The homeowners on either side--C. Calvert Knudsen and Christopher Davis--would like to buy the lot from the city (boosting their own properties to over 29,000 square feet each), but they need city council approval. The council needs to determine if the deal comes with a public benefit. Thus, the 40-minute standoff.

Knudsen--a retired lawyer and private investor--petitioned the city for a "street vacation" (a process whereby the city can sell public land to a private party, if doing so serves the public interest) last year. He'd already secured a city permit and built a landslide-preventing retaining wall on the property at a reported cost of $225,000, and says a street vacation would compensate him for the wall and allow him to maintain the project, which he argues benefits the public.

Wills, however--citing Department of Design, Construction and Land Use records and a negative finding from the Seattle Design Commission (which reviews street vacation requests)--thinks Knudsen is pursuing a private benefit: a second home on his enlarged property. "He would like to [split] his property to build an additional home," Wills says. (Knudsen and his lawyer did not return calls for comment.) She told the council that Knudsen's plan "to build a grander multi-level home, with a grander multi-million-dollar view" is something to bear in mind.

"I don't really care what his motivations are," Conlin counters. Conlin sees a public benefit in getting the property on the tax rolls, and thinks the city could escape some landslide liability if it became private property. (Wills calls the liability issue a red herring--the area's residents signed "hold harmless" agreements that insulate the city from landslide liability, she says.)

The council split down the middle, voting 4-4. (Richard McIver, who previously voted against the proposal in committee, was absent.) Because of the deadlock, the council will get another chance to examine Knudsen's motivations on January 21.