Overlay is Overkill on Granny Flats

By Brent Woodcox

Grannies just can't catch a break in Raleigh.

Fresh off a failed attempt to stifle senior housing in residential districts because of concerns of ambulance sirens that accompany emergency medical care for the elderly, Raleigh City Council members Stef Mendell, Russ Stephenson, Kay Crowder and David Cox are fighting housing for older folks once again. This time in the form of granny flats.

What is a granny flat anyway? It goes by several different names. Granny flats, backyard cottages, accessory dwelling units (or ADUs). But most of these terms refer to the same thing. It comes in many forms but it is essentially the construction of a second building on the property that is used as living quarters. It could be a basement apartment, a space built over the garage or a tiny house built on a foundation in the backyard.

It's an old idea. You see them in DC in the alleyway apartments. You see them in older southern cities in the form of carriage houses. You even see them in Raleigh in older neighborhoods close to the city center like Cameron Park. They were built before the city outlawed them and they have been "grandfathered" in under the existing city code. 

In fact, one city councilor, Russ Stephenson, who happens to live in Cameron Park actually has three ADUs on his property.

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Who knew that Councilor Stephenson is a YIMBY? He is literally saying, "Yes in my backyard" to ADUs on his own property but no to ADUs on yours.

Of course, why should this be surprising coming from the same councilor who said that he enjoys staying in Airbnbs "all the time in other cities" while blocking short term rentals from becoming legal in Raleigh?

Next Wednesday, Raleigh city councilors are scheduled to take up a proposal in the city's Growth and Natural Resources committee that would essentially ensure that ADUs are unlikely to be approved or built anytime soon anywhere in the city. (Worth noting here that Councilor Stephenson previously stacked this committee with his confidants.)

The new law being proposed would, according to a city document, "create a new zoning overlay district, in which construction of an accessory residential structure would be permitted on the same lot as a principal building, subject to certain regulations."

If you don't know what an overlay district is, that's probably because there are relatively few neighborhoods in the city that have one. A historic overlay district exists in Oakwood, for instance. There is also a provision in the city code that allows for a "neighborhood conservation overlay district." These type of rules govern issues like minimum lot setbacks, minimum lot depth, and maximum building height. These rules have been used, without exception, to make neighborhoods less dense and to block the construction of new housing.

The same will be true here if this proposal is adopted. This new law is designed to put as much red tape and bureaucratic bluster between homeowners and the construction of a granny flat on their properties. The hope of the city councilors who support this proposal is that between the trouble and expense of having to go through the rezoning process and the requirement you to get 50% of all property owners within 15 contiguous acres of your property to sign a petition so that you can simply construct a small living space for your aging parents will convince to give up and not pursue it at all.

After all, the folks who are against ADUs have been waging a war against them for years in Raleigh. They fought the proposal for backyard cottages during the process of adopting the Unified Development Ordinance between 2011 and 2013 eventually keeping them out of that law. They spread misinformation and fearmongering when Mordecai tried to get a pilot program for ADUs approved for their neighborhood blocking that proposal to this day. They have made their antipathy towards ADUs quite clear at this point.

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Disingenuously, they are now sure to come forward and claim that this new proposal is a "compromise." A compromise is not getting 100% of what you want. What these councilors want is to block ADUs from being built in Raleigh. This proposal will accomplish that goal. The time and exorbitant expense required to build even one of these structures will convince homeowners that it's not worth it.

There are no legitimate reasons for making the process of building a small space on your property for your aging parents this difficult. Other cities in North Carolina, such as Durham and Asheville, already allow ADUs to be built by right. They have not experienced any serious problems from them. 

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The city's own Comprehensive Plan says that Raleigh should "ensure that zoning policy continues to provide ample opportunity for developers to build a variety of housing types, ranging from single-family to dense multi-family. Keeping the market well supplied with housing will moderate the costs of owning and renting, lessening affordability problems, and lowering the level of subsidy necessary to produce affordable housing." Specifically, in regard to ADUs, it says that constructing them can "provide affordable and workforce housing options and help accommodate future citywide residential demand."

ADUs are not disruptive to neighborhoods. They have not caused problems in other cities. There is no legitimate reason to put your right to build a backyard cottage up to a vote of your neighbors. There is ongoing controversy involving an overlay district in Anderson Heights. I witnessed neighbors pitted against neighbors at a recent Five Points CAC meeting. The exchange was bitter and heated. But what do you expect when you cast neighbor against neighbor in a death match over the single most valuable thing that they own. Why would we want more of these disputes to be encouraged in our city? How can that be what is best for protecting the character of neighborhoods?

With the potential economic development, new jobs and influx of new families moving to our area, we don't need city councilors to make it harder to build more housing. We need to be finding ways to make it easier.

Unfortunately, Councilors Mendell, Stephenson, Crowder and Cox seem intent on taking us in the wrong direction.

Brent Woodcox