Eager to see more accessory dwelling units throughout Palo Alto, city leaders agreed on Monday to revise the city's zoning code to make it easier for homeowners to turn portions of their backyards into living spaces.
By a unanimous vote, the City Council approved on Monday a series of revisions that aim to make local regulations consistent with new state laws and to address concerns about privacy and noise. In doing so, however, the council resisted calls from local architects who asked that the city go even further and relax rules pertaining to sewer lines and green buildings.
The council's actions come at a time when the city is seeing a boom in accessory dwelling units. Historically, the city had only received about four applications per year for such units. Since 2015, however, it has issued 146 permits for the construction of backyard dwellings. Of those, 84 have received final permits, Planning Director Jonathan Lait told the council Monday.
The vast majority of the new units are detached dwellings, with the city receiving 130 applications for such structures in the past three years, according to planning staff. It also has received 60 applications for attached units and four applications for junior accessory dwelling units, apartments that are carved out within the walls of the primary dwellings.
Lait said the city is hoping to see even more such units as part of its strategy to meet regional targets for new construction of market-rate units. If the city fails to meet these goals, Lait noted, developers will be able to get their projects approved under the provisions of Senate Bill 35, which allows for a streamlined process without a design review.
In 2018, when the state last checked in with the city, Palo Alto had produced just enough housing to meet its threshold for market-rate units. The 62 accessory dwelling units that the city had approved by that point were critical in helping the city meet the target, according to Lait.
"We've definitely made some good headway," Lait said. "Certainly, if we modified our standards more, we can make more progress. But it's a question of how we balance ADU production with privacy and some of the other concerns."
Some of the city's new regulations aim to achieve compliance with new state laws. These include a provision that grants homeowners an 800-square-foot exemption from lot-coverage regulations to enable construction of accessory dwelling units; a new rule that allows homeowners to construct junior accessory dwelling units by right; and the elimination of a prior requirement that the owner occupies the main dwelling.
In other areas, the city's revisions slightly deviate from state requirements. While state laws exempt detached accessory dwelling units from parking requirements, they are silent on parking rules for garages with junior accessory dwelling units. Palo Alto's new rules would require junior accessory dwelling units created through garage conversions to replace the lost parking, but they allow homeowners to use uncovered spaces such as driveways and setbacks to meet this requirement.
The city's latest revision also includes new rules aimed at protecting the privacy of neighbors when a two-story accessory dwelling unit is built. This includes requirements that second story doors and decks not face a neighboring dwelling and that second-story decks include screening barriers to prevent a view into adjacent properties. Second-story windows would have to either utilize obscure glazing or have a sill height of at least 5 feet.
The new rules effectively give any homeowner the ability to create three units on their single-family lot: the main residence, the accessory dwelling unit and the junior accessory dwelling unit, according to planning staff. And while residents have in the past complained about the prospect of the ADUs being used as short-term rentals and raised concerns about parking impacts, the city has not received many complaints about the new structures, according to Lait.
Some residents and architects wanted the city to go further. Jessica Resmini, an architect who is a member of a task force that worked with the city on the new revisions, submitted a letter with 15 recommendations for the council to adopt. These include the adoption of new rules to allow two-story ADUs that rely on subterranean construction, a reduction of fees and a less stringent "green-building requirement."
"Our call to action is housing," Resmini told the council. "We have to be creative and we have to be persistent to keep pace with rapidly growing business and population.
"It's imperative," she said, for the city to "not miss this opportunity by adopting an unfinished ordinance."
"What Palo Alto does or fails to do will influence other cities across the state," Resmini said.
Architects Randy Popp, former chair of the Architectural Review Board, and Dan Garber, former chair of the Planning and Transportation Commission, similarly urged the council to include more streamlining measures to simplify the process for building accessory dwelling units.
"Palo Alto has a very strong reputation for having a highly regulated design environment because of the need to carefully navigate the varied interests of our community," Garber told the council. "However, this environment also increases cost durations, fees and consequently the opportunity for community members to consider improving their properties as it becomes significantly more constrained compared to most other communities that my firm works in."
The council agreed that some of the issues raised by the task force need to be explored further but declined to incorporate them into the Monday revisions. Council members voted unanimously to direct the Planning and Transportation Commission to analyze the proposals, as well as the prospect of creating accessory dwelling units that are deed-restricted for affordable housing.
Councilman Eric Filseth called the staff's proposed revisions "a good balance" and suggested that more changes may be coming soon.
"We're counting on ADUs to be a significant part of our ability to meet our housing targets, so I think this all makes sense," Filseth said. "This will not be our last bite at the apple."