Ryan McDonald

Hermosa Beach Planning Commission rejects ‘granny flats’ ordinance

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Hermosa Beach City Hall

by Ryan McDonald

The Hermosa Beach Planning Commission unanimously opposed advancing an ordinance governing accessory dwelling units at its Tuesday night meeting, signaling serious concern with the ways recent California laws could impact Hermosa’s quality of life and community character.

In an effort to comply with new rules from the state legislature, the proposed ordinance would have permitted an additional, smaller unit on residentially zoned lots of at least 4,000 square feet currently containing a single-family home. Commissioners asked staff to return with a revised ordinance next month, saying that the current proposal had the potential to transform neighborhoods.

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“The state is holding a gun to our head. I wish there was something that could put a stop to this. I wish there was another way we could get around this,” said Chairman Rob Saemann.

The proposal came to the commission because of an ongoing push by the state to address what it has deemed a housing crisis. Homebuilding cratered following the Great Recession, but  in recent years the pace of new construction has lagged far behind the state’s booming economy — and the rate at which the rest of the country is adding housing units.

The result has been surging rents and real estate prices, and a search for ways to provide lower-cost housing. In 2016, the legislature passed laws intended to expand the availability of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which are commonly referred to as “granny flats” or “in-law apartments.” They can be built within an existing home, in an attached structure such as a garage, or as a detached unit on the property. That legislation was amended by SB 229 and AB 494, which went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year.

Taken together, the new bills void California cities’ existing restrictions on ADUs. Tuesday’s vote leaves in place the default state regulations, which govern accessory dwelling units until cities come up with new ordinances, and do not include any lot-size limit. As a result, practically every residentially zoned lot with a single-family home in Hermosa is eligible to add an ADU. Under the state law, city planning departments must process applications for ADUs within 120 days of receiving them, and the units may not be subject to a vote of the Planning Commission or City Council.

Since the legislative updates in Jan. 2017, the city has received three applications for the units, one of which has been approved and two of which are pending, according to Planning Manager Kim Chafin. Commissioners said that they didn’t want to rush to recommend an inappropriate ordinance and wanted more public input, but also acknowledged the risk of leaving the default state framework in place for too long.

“As this becomes part of the conversation, I have a feeling we’re going to be inundated with people trying to get in before we change the law,” said Commissioner Peter Hoffman.

Hermosa previously limited accessory dwelling units to lots of greater than 8,000 square feet, substantially reducing the number of properties eligible to erect the units. That law, passed in 1992, was permitted because state law at the time allowed restrictions on ADUs if a city submitted findings that municipal infrastructure, such as schools and the sewer system, would be adversely affected by adding more units. The recent laws removed that qualification.

Resident George Schmeltzer, a former City Council member, was disappointed with the direction in state law. He said that it threatened decades of effort by the city to preserve its small, beach-town character.

“It’s kind of humbling to sit in the audience and watch 40 years of work go down the tubes in about 10 minutes,” Schmeltzer said.

Under the ordinance drafted by staff, 1,589 lots in the city would have been eligible to add an accessory dwelling unit. The 4,000-square-foot lot size is the minimum in the city code for new construction, but there about 2,000 units in the city that are on smaller lots and are grandfathered in as nonconforming. Residents living in single-family homes on these lots would not have been eligible to add ADUs under the draft ordinance, but are under the default state regulations.

Staff said they developed the ordinance through consultation with the California Department of Housing and Community Development, which is tasked with implementing the regulations, but also considered local conditions. Hermosa Beach is already the most densely populated of the Beach Cities, and staff acknowledged that the added units could exacerbate existing concerns like the scramble for parking.

Assistant City Attorney Lauren Langer, who has worked on ADU rules in other cities, said she understood commissioners’ concerns about impacts associated with added units, and would take them into account in the revised ordinance. But Langer cautioned that the legislature was considering a bill that would require state approval of local ADU rules, and another that would refer cases of noncompliance to the Attorney General’s office.

“Sometimes the legislature responds by pushing back harder,” she said.

Legislators and candidates in the upcoming gubernatorial race are increasingly attempting to tame California’s unaffordability by removing or weakening local restrictions on new housing, which many experts say contribute to California lagging behind other states in building new homes. Commissioners agreed that there was a housing crisis in the state, but were emphatic that Hermosa was not the place to solve it.

“We are not interested in increasing density,” said Commissioner Marie Rice.

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