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Despite opposition, Council narrowly OKs measure on ‘granny flats’

Monday, June 16, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

There were storms raging inside and outside of City Hall early Friday morning, when the Austin City Council took on “granny flat” advocates and detractors at last week’s meeting.


The fight started 12 hours earlier, on the steps of City Hall. In a noon news conference, the Austin Neighborhoods Council members criticized Council Member Chris Riley’s resolution designed to make it easier building small second houses – aka “granny flats.” The issue drew a crowd of both supporters and opponents of the resolution. Just past midnight, passions remained high as City Council took up the item.


The resolution is just a first step in removing barriers to construction of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, of 500 square feet or less. Those opposed to the resolution expressed concern about a citywide change that could circumvent traditional neighborhood plans. Those in favor stressed the need for more affordable housing and less onerous city regulations.


“I’m concerned about both of the options that we are looking at here…What we have are, what appears to be two armed camps, with their own very fine-grained, very deep-set opinions on the subject,” said Council Member Bill Spelman.


Spelman made a minor change to the resolution, adding a line that clarified any ordinance could be adopted either citywide or as an infill option for neighborhood plans.


In the end, City Council voted 4-3 to approve the resolution, with Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo in opposition. Tovo and Riley are running against each other to represent District 9 in the new single-member district Council system.


Riley said that, while he took all of the concerns raised seriously, the overriding concern for him was the “very serious housing issue” in Austin. Riley pointed to rising housing costs forcing people out of the city and a shortage of student housing as manifestations of a problem that, he said, accessory dwelling units could help address.


Riley said that the units could help by providing housing not only for those who would like to live alone, but also by giving some relief to homeowners who are struggling with taxes by giving them a way to earn extra money off their property.


“I’ve heard from a number of people who think they aren’t going to be able to remain in the places where they’ve been for years unless they can generate some revenue stream to help them offset the costs that they are facing. That’s exactly what these units offer the possibility of,” said Riley.


Riley said that he hoped the small units could be built with minimal impact to existing neighborhood character.


“We’re not talking about great big new apartment buildings being plunked down in neighborhoods. We’re talking about very discreet housing opportunities that are often in people’s backyards,” said Riley.


Members of the Austin Neighborhoods Council spoke out against the resolution, which their executive committee voted to oppose.


ANC’s own resolution asked City Council to withdraw the proposal, and consider it in the context of the Land Development Code rewrite currently underway. To do otherwise, they said, would be disrespecting community participation in city processes and undermining the CodeNext process.


Under current code, neighborhoods can choose to allow secondary residential units as part of their neighborhood plan. A sweeping change to approve those units citywide would undermine that process and neighborhood plans, said Mary Ingle, who called Riley’s proposal a “City Hall edict telling neighborhoods what to do.”


Cole said that she had become “increasingly concerned about the CodeNEXT process.” She asked that the resolution be included in that process instead of being adopted as a separate resolution. Morrison supported that idea, also backing up Cole’s increasing concerns about the CodeNEXT process.


“If we were to adopt a blanket (accessory dwelling unit) proposal like this, we would be in effect amending many, many neighborhood plans,” said Morrison. “To do it outside of CodeNEXT violates the Imagine Austin Plan.”


Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd affirmed Morrison’s position but said the adoption of the resolution was only the beginning of a process and that it was not yet in violation of any legal requirements. The amendment to shuttle the resolution through the CodeNEXT process failed in a vote of 3-4 with Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Members Mike Martinez, Spelman and Riley voting in opposition.


Neighborhood advocates also expressed concerns about the elimination of parking requirements, noting that Austin continues to be a car-centric city that needs parking. However, those in favor of the resolution explained that current parking requirements were excessive.


“I am more concerned about housing people than storing cars,” said Riley, who noted the city had a number of ways to address street parking problems.


Austin resident Julie Montgomery said that when she inquired about building a secondary unit, she was told that she would be ”tickling the code beast,” which would require her to build parking for her house that was previously exempt in addition to parking for the new unit. That could only be accomplished by cutting down several trees and paving over her yard, which would affect the neighborhood character more than parking on the existing street.

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