When Palo Alto officials changed the zoning rules for accessory-dwelling units last year, their goal was to encourage the construction of these little dwellings on residential lots throughout the city.
But for Chris Gadda, the new law might inadvertently lead to a unit's destruction.
About six years ago, Gadda bought a home that included an illegal accessory-dwelling unit (ADU), he told the Planning and Transportation Commission on Wednesday night. More recently, he tried to make structural upgrades to fix up the main home's brick foundation, which dates back to 1901. But in trying to get a permit, he was told that he'd have to bring the accessory-dwelling unit into compliance before he could get to work on the main house.
Gadda said he hoped to have his mother-in-law live in the new structure, but because the law ties improvements to the main house to the accessory-dwelling units, he might have to "smash up" the ADU to make the needed foundation fixes.
"I'm hoping we can look at ways for more flexibility for illegal ADUs to be legalized," Gadda told the commission during a wide-ranging and at times emotional discussion of the new law.
The city has seen some modest successes with the new law since its passage in April. Traditionally, the city has seen only about four accessory-dwelling units constructed per year, according to staff. Last year, planners had issued permits for nine new ADUs. Another 14 applications are currently under review, according to a report from the Department of Planning and Community Environment.
But as the commission learned on Wednesday, the new law is also riddled with kinks and ambiguities, which at times lead to confusion and unintended consequences.
Judith Wasserman, a longtime architect and former chair of the Architectural Review Board, said she was designing an ADU for a client when she was informed by planning staff that the 400-square-foot unit would have to be compliant with the city's "green building" codes. This despite the fact that the green-building sheet states that the program applies only to projects with 1,000 square feet or more, she told the commission.
And Tom Lundy, who launched plans in 2016 to build an ADU cottage on his Loma Verde Avenue property, was surprised by the new law, which prohibits the main house and the ADU to both be rented out to separate tenants. Lundy noted in a letter that the deed restrictions required by the new ADU ordinance have made the project "financially infeasible for us." In a letter, he asked the city for a waiver that would allow him to proceed under the old rules, which did not have a deed-restriction requirement for owner occupancy.
The planning commission discussed these issues, and other complications surrounding the new ordinance, over a wide-ranging and at times contentious meeting Wednesday. While they didn't take any votes, most commissioners agreed that the ordinance could benefit from some further revisions.
There was little consensus, however, on exactly what should be changed. Commission Chair Ed Lauing and Commissioner Doria Summa both noted that the ordinance is still new and that the city doesn't have enough data to justify significant revisions.
Commissioner Michael Alcheck, on the other hand, argued that the new law is severely flawed and riddled with inconsistencies. He pointed, for example, to a provision that grants homeowners who construct new accessory-dwelling units a density bonus of 175 square feet -- a concession intended to both make the project more lucrative and more code-compliant. Providing bonus lot coverage and floor area is to "give some development flexibility for existing developed sites that may be at or near the related maximums allowed."
As written, the provision applies only to owners of existing homes. Those building a new home with an ADU, would not be eligible for the bonus -- unless, that is, they build the main house, wait six months, and only then apply for the ADU.
Alcheck argued that provisions like this needlessly create two classes of people: those eligible for the bonus and those who would not receive it. The city, he argued, should make the density bonus available for all ADU construction, whether or not the unit is built near an existing home or alongside a brand new one.
"Is there a single good rationale that can be identified that can support the positions that bonuses ... can be granted for ADUs built after the single-family home but not concurrently?" Alcheck asked.
Commissioner Przemek Gardias agreed with Alcheck's logic, though he came to a different conclusion. Rather than give floor-area bonuses to all ADU projects, the city should scrap it altogether, Gardias said.
"We can find another way to allow for (a) larger number of units for ADUs to get built," Gardias said.
Alcheck also opposed the provision in the new ordinance requiring the owner to occupy either the main house or the ADU -- a requirement that is memorialized in a deed restriction ADU builders have to sign. According to Campbell's report, the provision aims to help "address neighborhood concerns about absent land owners and increased rental activity in residential neighborhoods."
At the same time, about 23 percent of the city's single-family homes are renter-occupied and would thus not be eligible for an ADU. By only allowing ADUs at owner-occupied properties, Alcheck argued that the city is basing the law on an "irrational fear" of renters.
Not everyone shared this view. Summa said that she has no problem with renters but argued that there is value in knowing your neighbors and not having heavy tenant turnover in residential neighborhoods.
There was more agreement the topic of development fees for new ADUs, which can add up to nearly $10,000. Commissioners agreed that these fees should be reduced or waived altogether for cases where the homeowner commits to renting out the ADU at a below market rate.
Staff plans to return to the commission in the spring with a list of potential changes to the ADU ordinance, which would then be forwarded to the City Council for adoption.