With In-Law Units Easier To Build, Some Complain Of Crowded Neighborhoods

Friday May 16, 2003

The Planning Commission, prompted by concerns aired by community members and government officials during a public hearing on Wednesday, asked department staff to examine the possibility of reducing the minimum size allowed for accessory dwelling units, also known as in-law or secondary units, to encourage the development of more such units. 

Staff was also instructed to study the possibility of restricting the height allowed for secondary units to and increasing the rear and side space required for such units to prevent the encroachment of secondary units on neighbors. 

The hearing was held to discuss proposed amendments to the city ordinance that will make it easier to establish accessory dwelling units. The changes are necessary to comply with a state law passed last year that requires cities to eliminate discretionary review and public hearing requirements for the development of secondary units. The city must formulate its own revised ordinance within certain parameters by July, or simply adopt the state guidelines verbatim. 

Accessory dwelling units are those created as an addition to a main dwelling unit, either within a main structure, or built separately from the main building. The city’s proposed amendments would allow developers to build a secondary unit in all primarily residential zones if they comply with a certain set of objective standards specified in the ordinance, including requirements related to the size of the unit, the size of the lot containing the unit, and the amount of space allowed on the side and rear of the unit. 

The current version of the draft ordinance states that the total floor area of the secondary unit not exceed 25 percent of the main dwelling unit and that the floor area of the secondary unit be no less than 300 square feet. At least two speakers at the hearing requested that the city revise these requirements to allow for the development of more accessory dwelling units. 

Jennifer Kaufer, a Berkeley resident and a member of Livable Berkeley, a nonprofit devoted to sustainable development, said the current size limitation would prevent the development of secondary units. 

“People with houses of 1,200 square feet wouldn’t be able to build under this requirement,” she said. “And given the number of traditional bungalows in Berkeley, the [size] requirement would significantly reduce the number of units being created.” 

At least one other resident didn’t agree with her. Tim Awry, who lives on Francisco Street near Franklin Elementary School, said he was concerned about the parking problems and congestion more accessory units would bring. 

“The parking problem is already bad and will get worse when the Adult School moves into my neighborhood,” he said. “Do we really want to look like San Francisco, like Japan, where there are wall-to-wall houses. Don’t we appreciate our gardens? Do we really want neighbors peering into your garden?” 

Other residents said they were worried that property owners would build secondary units that would tower over or encroach on existing residences, bringing shade to existing units and eliminating valued garden space. The current draft requires that detached secondary units have at least four feet of rear and side space. There is no current height restriction. 

The commission is also struggling with the question of owner occupancy. The current draft requires that the owner be a resident of the main dwelling unit. Commissioners discussed whether such a requirement is desirable or enforceable. Andy Katz, a member of the Zoning Adjustment Board, said the requirement would be “unduly restrictive on homeowners.” He also said it was hard to enforce. 

“If a grandmother moves into a unit, is that a tenant or a member of the [owner’s] family?” he asked. 

Senior planner Janet Homrighausen will complete another staff report examining the possibility of allowing for smaller secondary units, increasing the set back space and restricting the height limit. She will also look at policies in other cities regarding owner occupancy requirements for secondary units. The commission will consider the new information at the May 28 meeting, at which point it can wrap up its recommendations and send it to the full council for consideration.