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Relaxed Law on 'Granny Flats' in Santa Monica Moves Closer to Approval


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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

December 21, 2016 -- Santa Monica is closer to easing rules for “granny flats,” or second smaller units that homeowners historically built on their property for housing family members but are now viewed as a way to address the affordable housing crunch.

Despite such concerns as the impact on parking, the City’s Planning Commission has tentatively supported modifying local zoning to match a new statewide law that relaxes restrictions on constructing an “accessory dwelling unit” (ADU) in the backyard or in garages on the property of Santa Monica’s single-family homes.

The final decision must still be made by the City Council. The commission in this case makes recommendations. The panel agreed to recommend the ADU changes as part of a series of other suggested modifications made to the City’s new zoning law at its December 14 meeting.

However, the alterations will go before the panel again in February for more discussion as it wrestles with potential impacts. One worry among commissioners are exemptions that mean few of the units would be required to include new parking.

Governor Jerry Brown in September signed into law bills, including one by Santa Monica Assemblyman Richard Bloom, that require localities across California to make granny flats easier to build ("Santa Monica Assemblyman's "Granny Flats" Bill Signed into Law," September 28, 2016).

Such units usually cost less to rent than the market rate, and also are needed by income earners who have been priced out of many communities by California’s soaring rents.

The new law takes effect in January. Under it, water and sewer agencies are prevented from charging hookup fees for ADUs built within an existing house or an existing detached unit on the same lot.

Local agencies also cannot impose parking rules for some ADUs, including those located within a half-mile from public transit or units that are part of an existing primary residence.

“That exemption probably covers most of the units,” Tony Kim, a principal City planner, told commissioners.

ADUs in historic districts also are granted parking exemptions, although the commissioners recommend expanding that to any historic residence.

The units cannot exceed 650 square feet and are legal only on single-family parcels of at least 4,000 square feet. Only one ADU is allowed and the homeowners must live in the main dwelling -- a requirement aimed at preventing the sites being used as illegal short-term rentals.

Critics have said the new state law puts the character of single-family neighborhoods at risk, and Commissioner Mario Fonda-Bonardi expressed a similar concern.

The City needs to be careful not to “turn all R-1 (single-family home zoning) into duplexes,” he said. If it doesn’t do so, “we’re essentially eliminating R-1 zoning,” he said.

Fonda-Bonardi was also the only commissioner who was against taking a vote on the changes at the meeting, saying he was worried the panel would be too busy when it meets in February to give details of the ordinance enough attention.

Granny flats are not unusual in California or elsewhere, although, in many cases, they are built without meeting all building and zoning requirements. City officials said a law allowing those units has been on the books since the 1980s.

City Planning Division Manager Jing Yeo told the commissioners the City does not know how many illegal granny flats exist in Santa Monica, although there was grumbling at the meeting by commissioners that such units are prevalent in the Sunset Park area.

Yeo said the City will be able to determine how extensively the relaxed law is used in the future. But the City doesn’t plan to look for illegally built ADUs to bring owners into compliance.

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