Encinitas eyes granny flats over high-density apartments or condos

The city of Encinitas, while still trying to craft a state-required housing element, is once again pushing for granny flats and other types of “accessory dwelling units” as an alternative to high-density, multi-family buildings.

In a recent newsletter, Mayor Catherine Blakespear said that at nearly every public housing forum, “residents report that accessory dwelling units, which include stand-alone little cottages, converted garages, granny flats or miscellaneous structures turned into smaller homes, are an acceptable and desired form of housing in our city. In contrast, hulky blocks of apartments are less-desired. Accessory units fit into our existing community character, which has more single-family homes than any other type. According to SANDAG, we have 13,000 detached single-family homes, 8,000 single-family multi-unit homes (i.e. duplexes) and 4,000 multi-family homes (condos and apartments).”

Blakespear notes that city estimates suggest there are at least 1,000 unpermitted accessory units in the city, many of them built before Encinitas incorporated in 1986. The city has certified 610 accessory units over the last 30 years, permitting 27 in 2015 and 24 in 2016.

“Recent loosening of state laws has already resulted in increases to the number of accessory units locally, which is a great thing,” she writes. “We currently have 41 accessory units under construction and 22 seeking permits…. We’d like to make it easier for folks to obtain permits for their accessory units. Over time, this would allow us to count more accessory units toward our state-required housing needs, which will reduce the need for upzoning properties. Permitting accessory units will also ensure a higher level of safety for our city’s residents, and it gives peace of mind to land owners striving to follow the rules.”

Accordingly, the mayor writes, the city is moving forward on two “parallel fronts.” On the state level, the city has proposed a bill that will be carried by Senator Patricia Bates, a Laguna Niguel Republican, “that would allow a local inspector to certify an accessory unit for basic health and safety, but not require the owner to comply with all current building codes, which can be prohibitively expensive or literally impossible. Many of these units remain unpermitted because the owner’s only option is to completely rebuild the unit or tear it down. Obstacles can include drywall that’s too thin; a ceiling that’s too low; or insulation, windows, lateral resistance, and seismic requirements that don’t meet current code requirements.”

Blakespear said the city’s lobbyist spoke with more than a dozen legislators and housing advocates in Sacramento “and beyond” about this proposed bill, and received a lot of positive feedback. The specific language of the bill is currently being drafted by the attorneys who work for the legislature.

The second front, Blakespear writes, “is on the local level – we’ve had three ‘amnesty’ type programs related to accessory units, but none of them have been very successful. Some of the reluctance to participate has stemmed from requirements that owners deed-restrict their unit to be affordable, which means they likely collect rent that is lower than market rates. We’ve also discovered that some of the impediments come from our local regulations.

“For example, there are restrictions on the total amount of lot coverage allowed on a buildable lot that can make an accessory unit impossible to permit; sometimes the setback requirements in certain zones mean an existing unit would have to be torn down because it’s sitting inside the prohibited area; and there are limits on the maximum living area for an accessory unit, rendering some structures too big to ever be permitted.”

City staff has been instructed to get back to the Encinitas City Council “with proposals on relaxing some of these requirements in certain circumstances,” Blakespear writes. “Loosening local zoning standards is a trade-off, but we first need to know more about what the stakes are. The City Council will review staff’s proposals and proceed from there.”


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