Updated: After Zoning Changes for New Accessory Dwelling Law, Council Focusing on Legal Amendments

Updated: After Zoning Changes for New Accessory Dwelling Law, Council Focusing on Legal Amendments

The latest changes would require quarterly reports to monitor effect

| Published:
ADU

A backyard cottage accessory dwelling unit in Winchester, Va.

Image via Flickr: BeyondDC (CC BY-SC 2.0)

This story and headline were updated at 6:10 p.m. Sept. 16, 2019, to clarify that the County Council is considering additional changes related to accessory dwelling units, not changes to the bill it already passed. Also, Council member Hans Riemer’s last name was misspelled in some references.

After making zoning changes to pass Montgomery County’s new accessory dwelling unit law, the County Council is focusing on other legal changes.

The County Council unanimously approved the bill in July in the face of intense opposition from some property owners.

The law made several changes to the county’s zoning codes to make it easier to construct ADUs — fully furnished supplementary dwellings — on single-family lots. The dwellings can take many forms, but are often referred to as granny flats, in-law units, or backyard cottages.

The legislation — inspired by successful models in Portland and Seattle, according to Council member Hans Riemer — was intended to increase affordable housing in Montgomery County by encouraging smaller, more cost-accessible units as additions on individual properties.

Two months after the law passed, council members are considering changes to other legal issues. Riemer said the council knew all along that the additional changes couldn’t be included with the zoning bill.

The latest changes would adjust the county’s licensing provisions to match the zoning changes that made it easier to build ADUs. Most of those changes are superficial, Riemer said, including replacing the phrase “accessory apartment,” as currently used in the licensing code, with “accessory dwelling unit” to match new zoning language.

“We’re just amending them to match each other,” Riemer said.

Another licensing adjustment allows the owner of the lot to reside in either the primary or accessory dwelling, a change introduced in the new law.

But the amendments also include language that could alleviate the concerns of opponents, who have said in public forums — including The Washington Post — that the new law would increase traffic, strain available parking, and even lower property values, according to some critics. County Executive Marc Elrich, who opposed the original law, suggested in an online statement last May that ADUs could contribute to school overcrowding.

To help alleviate those concerns, Councilwoman Nancy Navarro pushed for a licensing change that requires executive departments to include a section on accessory dwelling units in their quarterly reports. Those reports stem from an earlier bill introduced by Navarro in 2016, which created “neighborhood action teams” to address quality of life issues within Montgomery County.

The teams are informed by agency reports that address neighborhood issues and can include recommendations for increasing code enforcement. By including ADUs in those reports, Navarro said, local leaders can respond quickly if the units are creating new problems in residential neighborhoods.

“It also allows us to monitor our resources,” she added. If the reports reveal that ADUs are creating more traffic violations in one neighborhood, or waste disposal problems in another, the county could allocate more code enforcement resources toward the area, Navarro said.

The original bill liberalized several zoning restrictions to make ADUs possible even on compact single-family lots. Residents with properties as small as 6,000 square feet — approximately 0.13 acres — can now construct supplementary dwellings.

Riemer, who sponsored the legislation, was inspired by Portland-based ADU advocate Kol Peterson and his book “Backdoor Revolution.” The 2018 guide details the regulatory steps for creating ADU-friendly zoning, which Peterson attributed to more than 2,800 new permits in Portland.“That helped me see that this is going to be a very meaningful solution,” Riemer said. “It’s very localized and can still have a big impact.”

As part of the zoning changes, the Montgomery County law also loosened parking restrictions for ADUs, so that owners are only required to ensure two off-street spots. The parking requirements are eliminated entirely if the unit is within a mile of a Metro, MARC, or future Purple Line station.

Those parking easements are part of the reason Elrich opposed the new law.

“I would have been a lot more comfortable if the requirements were eliminated within half a mile of a transit station,” he said. “This whole notion that it’s transit-friendly — well, it’s only transit friendly if it’s crafted to reflect the way people actually use transit. And there’s a lot of evidence that not many people will walk a mile to a train station.”

The amendment to require reports on ADUs are a good way to learn more information about the impact of the bill, Elrich added.

But he still has concerns over the legislation, including the fact that there’s no requirement to price the units affordably — generally defined as a monthly rent no more than 25 percent of a low to moderate household income.

Riemer, who sponsored the original ADU bill, quickly dismissed those concerns.

“Give me a break,” he said. “The point is, are these units more affordable than other ways of living in that area? And if you look at what it costs to live in a house versus living in an ADU, there’s a huge difference in terms of affordability.”

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