Backyard cottage

Backyard Debate

In Buzz, July 2018 / August 2018by Jane Porter

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Raleigh’s council still can’t reach a consensus on ADUs

In June, a diverse group of stakeholders sent a letter to Raleigh’s mayor and city council members asking them to approve an ordinance legalizing Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) for three years. It was the latest move in a struggle between proponents of ADUs, also called backyard cottages or granny flats, and a group of elected officials who see protecting neighborhood character as a high priority.

ADUs are a no-tax tool for the city to boost its stock of affordable housing, advocates say. They’re totally optional for homeowners, don’t cost citizens a dime, and they keep residents who might otherwise not be able to afford to live in the city—older adults, recent college graduates, service industry workers—connected with the community.

“We need this whole variety of tools to provide affordable housing, and this one should not be controversial,” says Karen Rindge, executive director of the nonprofit Wake Up Wake County, just one of the letter’s signatory groups alongside affordable housing developers, architects, builders, realtors and other advocates. “Why is it controversial when all the major cities in North Carolina allow [ADUs] and want to see more. What makes Raleigh different?”

As with short term rentals, the ADU issue has languished before the council for years, since the city effectively outlawed them when it overhauled its development code in 2013. Following citizen petitions, city staff crafted an ordinance to allow ADUs, regulating their height, setbacks, size, appearance and occupancy.

The groups who signed the June letter want the council to approve that ordinance absent other regulations for the three-year evaluation period. But the council has hesitated, instead debating ways to regulate ADUs so as to minimally impact neighborhoods in discussions at the council table and in the city’s Growth and Natural Resources Committee.

Council members’ concerns range from the practical—excess stormwater, what to do about parking for ADU occupants—to aesthetics and quality of life issues, including what materials ADUs can be built from, how noisy occupants will be, or whether homeowners can use ADUs for short term rentals. Some council members favor an Overlay District, a legislative tool that allows residents to decide whether ADUs should be allowed in their neighborhood.

“I would like to come up with the absolute simplest approval process known to mankind…to make this a minimal barrier to lots of neighborhoods that really want to to do this…[so they can] come forward in a mad rush to get their overlay,” said Councilmember Russ Stephenson at a June meeting of the Growth and Natural Resources Committee.

But the letter’s signatories, and other ADU proponents, see the proposed Overlay District as prohibitive to homeowners. Audrey Galloway, the associate state director of community outreach at the AARP, a national advocacy group for older adults, wants Raleigh to adopt the least restrictive ADU policies.

“If you’re piling one policy on top of another on top of another, to the point no one is ever going to build an ADU, that is not the least restrictive,” Galloway says. “We need to take into account what the community needs and how to provide it, and provide an atmosphere where, if someone wants to build, they can.”

In this way, Galloway says, the city can help address the need for more affordable housing for seniors. ADUs, after all, are nicknamed granny flats for a reason.

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