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Subcommittee seeks help for ADU changes

Monday, February 9, 2015 by Kara Nuzback

The Planning Commission Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee met Thursday to discuss amendments to a city ordinance regarding accessory dwelling units — apartments located on the same property as a house. But city staffer Ming-ru Chu could barely read through the proposed changes before members of the public and committee members were up in arms over the issue.

The amendments to accessory dwelling units (ADUs) stem from an August City Council resolution intended to make it easier for residents to build ADUs on their property. Some citizens noted the challenges associated with building secondary apartments; others said that relaxing restrictions could cause more parking congestion.

Ultimately, the committee unanimously decided to hold off on sending a recommendation to the full Planning Commission, and instead voted to seek help from CodeNEXT land developer consultant Opticos.

Chu said only 239 ADUs have been constructed since 2007. East Austin resident Andrei Lubomudrov said he can see why. Lubomudrov and his wife, Julie Montgomery, told the committee they tried to build an ADU so their aging parents could one day live there. But they decided against it, largely because of parking regulations that are unsuited to East Austin.

“Unless you have alley access, it’s prohibitively difficult,” he said.

Montgomery said that despite the excess of street parking in their neighborhood, she and Lubomudrov would have had to add three parking spots to their property to comply with the rules regarding ADUs. That would mean tearing out trees and paving over the garden outside of their 1,000-square-foot bungalow. “It’s just completely unnecessary,” she said.

Lubomudrov went on to say, “This is about affordability.” He said most of the properties in East Austin are being developed into large, expensive homes, and soon the only affordable housing will be on the edges of — or outside — the city.

The proposed amendments to the ADU ordinance would cut the current requirement for ADUs to have their own driveways and lift the restriction on parking in the front yard. Committee member Nuria Zaragoza was quick to point out problems with easing parking requirements.

“Parking as it is right now is insufficient,” she said. “I just don’t know how that is sensible.”

Mary Ingle of the Austin Neighborhoods Council said lack of parking is a huge issue near the University of Texas. “Not all neighborhoods are created equal,” she said. “Each neighborhood maybe needs to decide for themselves.”

Committee member Jean Stevens said, since every neighborhood has different needs, an opt-in or opt-out process for ADU requirements should be available.

Chu said the staff discussed an optional process, but decided it was easier to enforce ADU requirements citywide. Chu also said an opt-out process would be burdensome on city staff, and staff felt the changes in the ordinance were too minor to bother.

“That’s not what I’m hearing tonight,” Stevens countered.

Under the existing ADU ordinance, the secondary apartment must be detached from the principal house or structure. The proposed amendments would allow apartments within 10 feet of the rear or side of the main structure; currently the ordinance says the unit must be at least 15 feet from the rear only. Chu said the change was intended to account for oddly shaped properties.

The amendments would also add a provision to the ordinance requiring all second-story windows facing a neighboring property to be constructed above eye-level — 66 inches above the floor. “That came out of a concern for privacy,” Chu said.

Ex-officio committee member Jeff Jack said if the city required frosted glass for second-story windows abutting a neighbor’s property, it wouldn’t need to measure the windows’ height.

Resident Stuart Hersh argued that the proposed ADU amendments were exacerbating a “war on renters” in the city. He noted the proposed restrictions on second-story windows as one example, and pointed out that there are no such provisions for full-size homes with second-story windows facing their neighbors.

Hersh also said there are areas in the city where street parking is unavailable. “I don’t want to reduce parking,” he said.

Hersh suggested the staff recommendation should stipulate that ADUs cannot be built on a floodplain, and ADUs should never be offered as short-term rentals.

Committee member Danette Chimenti said the proposed amendments could work well in certain areas of the city, but not in every area. She said the recommendation should be more tailored to individual neighborhoods.

Member Stephen Oliver made a motion to seek consultation from Opticos, which is tasked with rewriting the Austin Comprehensive Land Development Code. He also moved to ask staff to collect more data on ADUs, including how many have been built since 2000 and how many property owners have built smaller accessory buildings instead of ADUs.

Zaragoza agreed with Oliver, saying the committee feels compelled to make some changes to ADUs, but “this belongs with planners that can really dissect these areas and know where this is going to fit.”

Bonnie and Clyde Garage Apartment” by AbeEzekowitzOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This story has been corrected to reflect the proper role of Opticos.

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