Prodded by new state laws, the Palo Alto City Council voted Monday to further relax local rules pertaining to accessory dwelling units, which are starting to proliferate around the city.
By a unanimous vote, the council continued the trend it had launched in spring 2017, when it first made a series of law revisions to encourage accessory dwelling units, also known as "granny units." Since then, the city has received about 150 applications for ADUs and has issued 112 permits, according to Planning Director Jonathan Lait.
While the numbers represent a significant ramp-up in production from prior years, when the city typically approved about four accessory dwellings units annually, the trend has also sowed some confusion. Both the council and the state Legislature have made numerous revisions to accessory dwelling unit rules since 2017, forcing would-be builders to navigate a constantly shifting permitting process.
And with Sacramento lawmakers passing last year a series of laws pertaining to building standards for accessory dwelling units — including Assembly Bill 68, Assembly Bill 881 and Senate Bill 13 — the city's planning staff has been scrambling to make local laws consistent with the new state requirements.
The latest revisions, which the council adopted Monday, aim to do just that. One of the changes that the council approved was the elimination of the city's requirement that the homeowner occupy the main residence near which the unit is being constructed — a rule that Palo Alto adopted in a bid to discourage the new dwellings from becoming Airbnb rentals.
The new standards also remove a requirement that a homeowner replace the parking space that would be lost by converting a garage into an accessory dwelling unit and ensure that the city's setback requirement for the new dwellings (the buffer zone between them and the neighboring property) does not exceed the 4-foot limit authorized by state law. They also allow homeowners to get over-the-counter approval for certain types of accessory dwelling units, including detached dwellings on multifamily lots and "junior accessory dwelling units," small units that are created by repurposing an existing bedroom into an independent living space.
The new rules would allow owners of single-family homes to receive density bonuses to accommodate an 800-square-foot accessory dwelling unit. (To date, the unit sizes in Palo Alto have ranged from 220 to 900 square feet, with an average size of 520 square feet, according to a quarterly update from Planning and Development Services.) They also specify that a detached accessory dwelling unit would be permitted near a single-family dwelling, provided its height does not exceed 16 feet and its floor area does not exceed 800 square feet. This unit can be established in addition to a junior accessory dwelling unit.
In adopting the new rules, council members recognized that their recent efforts to encourage the small dwellings are lagging behind those of the state. Mayor Adrian Fine, who has championed relaxing zoning rules to encourage more housing, said the new state mandates offer the council a lesson about keeping local regulations simple.
"We debated these all with good intent and long diligence," Fine said, referring to the local standards. "It may be a lesson that the state is moving in a bit of a different direction."
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, also a housing advocate, wondered why the city isn't seeing more applications. Even with the uptick in requests, Kniss said the city is "not steaming ahead with our ADUs" and suggested that the city's complex permitting process may be to blame.
"Is the issue that the people are thinking about it and deciding not to do it? Are they coming to us and deciding it's such a complicated process and they're not going to do it?" Kniss asked. "It seems as though this is really few for something that we really did a big, concerted effort to present to the public."
Lait said that are several cases in which the process took longer than expected, either because of the complexity of the regulations or because of "unique" situations pertaining to the proposals. Some residents have complained about the high impact fees that the city charges for new developments. The new state law tackles that by eliminating these fees for accessory dwelling units that are 750 square feet or smaller.
The latest revisions are unlikely to be the last. Even with the Monday adoption of an "urgency" measure to update the law accessory dwelling units, the city is still exploring possible inconsistencies between local and state standards. To ensure that the local law isn't deemed illegal because of possible inconsistencies with state law, City Attorney Molly Stump said the city is including a "catch-all" provision specifying that the state law would trump any local provision that does not comply with the new standards established by Sacramento lawmakers.
"To the extent any provision is inconsistent with mandatory requirement of the state law such that our ordinance would be found to be invalid — the state law provision should prevail," Stump said.