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Accessory dwelling unit change stalls in committee

Thursday, November 20, 2014 by Kara Nuzback

The City of Austin wants to make it easier for residents to establish accessory dwelling units — or ADUs — such as garage apartments on their property in order to create more housing in the city center. At Tuesday’s meeting of the Planning Commission’s Committee on Codes and Ordinances, residents spoke out against the changes primarily because they would ease minimum parking restrictions.

The committee voted unanimously to table a discussion about ADUs until its next meeting on Dec. 16.

City staffer and urban planner Ming-ru Chu detailed the staff’s recommendations. Chu said she took on the task after City Council passed a resolution to make it less difficult for property owners to comply with ADU requirements.

She said housing values and rents have increased since 2000. “At the same time, incomes have been relatively flat,” Chu said. ADUs are an affordable alternative for multigenerational families, and many neighborhoods prefer ADUs to duplexes, she added.

Proposed amendments to the City Code include lifting a requirement that an ADU have a paved driveway and, instead, allowing cars to park in the front yard. In addition, the amendments would change the requirement of two parking spaces per ADU to one parking space for dwellings that are more than 550 square feet. ADUs less than 550 total square feet would require no parking space.

City staffer Greg Dutton pointed out that the city would still require the main residential structure to have two parking spaces.

The proposal would also mandate that ADUs with a second floor have clerestory windows — above eye-level — to protect privacy, and that the city allow property owners to rent out ADUs for fewer than 30 days at a time.

Chu said the required lot size for ADUs and the zoning districts in which the units are allowed would not change.

Committee member Jean Stevens expressed concern about the proposed amendments conflicting with existing neighborhood plans. Several members of the public echoed her concern, including members of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association.

Karen McGraw said the committee should not recommend a blanket policy change for ADUs. She added that parking is valuable in Hyde Park, and changes to ADU parking requirements could change the character of the area.

Wanda Penn urged the committee to recommend Council wait for CodeNEXT, part of the Imagine Austin plan, to examine revisions in the Land Development Code.

Committee member Stephen Oliver responded that the city could not wait for CodeNEXT to make all its affordability decisions.

“We do need to be making some decisions before CodeNEXT is in front of us,” Oliver said. He added that he did not believe the committee should recommend reducing parking requirements, but did agree with the rest of staff’s proposed code amendments.

Housing advocate Stuart Harry Hersh said, “I’m against reducing parking.” He suggested several changes to the city’s proposal, including allowing residents to park in tandem, so each driveway could fit more cars. He also suggested repealing the minimum lot size for dwelling units and prohibiting short-term rental, so ADUs do not become a profit center for homeowners.

Committee member Nuria Zaragoza said she agreed with Stevens — the proposed changes circumvent the neighborhood planning process.

Stevens said the committee could recommend neighborhoods be allowed to opt-out of the proposed ADU changes. She also said that as the population of Austin continues to grow, so will the need for parking spaces. “They’re all coming with cars,” she said.

Chu countered that Council specified a reduction in parking for ADUs in its resolution.

Ex officio committee member Jeff Jack said he favors taking away the paved driveway requirement, but believes the number of required parking spaces should remain the same. Jack proposed tabling the discussion and modifying the staff’s recommendations.

“I think this needs work,” he said.

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