Mark McDermott

City will allow accessory dwelling units

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by Mark McDermott

Small accessory dwelling units are now legal to build on lots alongside single-family homes in parts of Manhattan Beach.

The City Council, with some reluctance, last week adopted an ordinance allowing “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) anywhere east of Blanche and Ardmore avenues. The action was required by a new California law intended to help address a statewide housing shortage. The council had used a series of moratoriums to delay altering city code to allow ADUs for the last year but faced a final Dec. 19 deadline to pass its own ordinance or else fall under the more permissive statewide law.

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Councilman David Lesser summed up he and his colleagues’ ambivalence regarding the new ordinance, noting that ADUs may benefit residents trying to house older family members, but overall could be detrimental to the city’s quality of life.

“I’m in favor of moving forward, but with reservations and concerns,” Lesser said.  “Notwithstanding my understanding of how certain elderly family members could really benefit from these accessory dwelling units, the fact of the matter is we have a great deal of density in our community, and this will add density. This is what the state has mandated to deal with a statewide housing crisis. There aren’t enough housing units for the number of people that seek them.”

Councilwoman Amy Howorth expressed skepticism that allowing ADUs would significantly create more housing stock in Manhattan Beach but did say that part of the issue was simply a matter of a homeowner’s rights.

“In theory, I want to support the homeowner’s right to do this to the property,” she said. “But keep in mind…what the state is trying to do is create more viable housing stock, and I don’t think that’s what this is going to do in this community.”

A city planning report indicated seven ADU applications are underway in Manhattan Beach. Community Development Director Anne McIntosh told the council that staff is receiving a lot of inquiries regarding building small dwelling units.

“In fact, there may be property owners in this room who have been saying, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity for me. I can add a unit to my property.’ So I think it’s likely we are going to get a fair number of people who see this as an opportunity to increase their property value or to accommodate a family member on their property in a rental.”

State laws passed last year allowed ADUs of up to 1,200 square feet in all single-family residential zoned areas. Cities were allowed to craft their own regulations regarding the unit, more commonly known as “granny flats,” but not to outright ban them. The city’s new ordinance, crafted originally by the Planning Commission, allows up to 700 square feet, whether the ADU is attached to the main house or detached. This number intentionally coincides with the city’s already-existing guest house regulations, thus making such structures more easily convertible. Unlike guest houses, however, ADUs must have a kitchen.

The city’s ordinance includes a covenant requirement that one of the two units on any property —  the main home or the ADU — must be owner-occupied and any rentals must be 30 days minimum. An additional part of the proposed covenant would have allowed owners to leave for up to two years, but the council struck that flexibility from the ordinance.

“I think it’s unrealistic, it’s untrackable, it’s unenforceable,” said Mayor Steve Napolitano. “So why do it?”

Resident Ray Joseph argued on behalf of even more flexibility than two years away for homeowners. He said it was about taking care of elderly family members.

“I have done some rentals we have rented the entire house so they could pay for assisted living,” he said. “Taking care of somebody elderly is a challenge. What ends up happening you have elderly parents and your kids — you are juggling them both…Think of your families and how you would manage that and it becomes challenging. For the people in the situation that have to do these sort of things, I get it, and I want to give them as much leeway as possible because it’s incredibly difficult to do. Think of the families, don’t just think of the structures, think of how people manage it. It could easily be a four to five-year solution.”  

The council’s final motion requires homeowners to live on the property at all times. McIntosh noted that the ordinance could be amended to be less restrictive at a later time, but could not be made more strict, in keeping with the state deadline.

“And so in order for us to have an ordinance that’s tailored to the nature of our community we want to adopt something this month,” she said. “I want to remind the council we can always make the ordinance more liberal as we move forward, if we feel the restrictions are too conservative.”

Napolitano said he sympathizes with the council’s ambivalence but also noted that density concerns resulting from the ADUs were minimal compared to what the city experienced two decades ago.

“It’s a state requirement, so there’s really no getting out of it,” he said. “I do remember, though, that in the early ‘90s people were not splitting lots but building two-on-a-lot and the double condos and everything,” he said. “You are seeing a trend going away from that — the demographic coming in, they are taking out the duplex and putting in a single family home…So we are trying to catch up with what the state wants while still maintaining local control.”

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