New rules streamline process for accessory dwelling units
Some worry about lack of oversight
By Chris Rooney
In an effort to put a dent in the housing shortage, new regulations are in place to streamline the process of building small rental units. Approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in January, the new regulations officially took hold Oct. 15, aiming to speed up the permit process for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as granny units or in-law units.
“I’m really proud of the supervisors for their action here,” said Bradley Dunn, policy manager at Permit Sonoma.
Unlike the sometimes tedious process of enacting any new rules, county officials were provided with a solid blueprint from Sacramento, as state legislators approved the speedier framework for ADUs last year. Locally, it was a case of mirroring state laws to avoid any conflict, thus making things clearer for those wanting to erect an ADU.
“The state came in and really opened things up,” Dunn said. “And then we aligned our regulations with state law. It clarifies things for everyone.”
Among the most impactful changes, the permit processing was reduced from 120 days to just 60. Another tweak in the old rules reduces the minimum lot size for property owners to qualify to build an ADU.
“We spent a long time getting into this housing crisis,” Dunn said. “There’s no magic bullet. This is a smart, targeted response to the housing crisis.”
Since these small units tend to veer into the affordable range, Dunn said they are attractive to a specific market. “There is real potential to help real people with a wide variety of needs,” he said. “We want affordable options for people in this county.”
Dunn said the goal was to create housing for county residents who both live and work locally.
Arthur Dawson of Glen Ellen found success through the relaxed permit process.
Dawson explained that he had plans to create an ADU on his Warm Springs Road property just before the fires of 2017 decimated his home. “I thought about a rental unit before the fire,” he said, adding that finances played a role in his decision-making.
During the rebuild process he opted to add the small unit, thanks in part to some of the insurance payout. He was also allowed to avoid permit fees.
“Housing is tough to come by,” Dawson said. “We thought this would be doing something for the community.”
Dawson said the ADU regulations provided no obstacles and the project was wrapped up in July of last year. He’s had a tenant for a year.
“It worked out for us,” he said. With a career in historic ecology, Dawson went into the project with an eye toward environmentalism. Armed with that knowledge, he was able to select greenery that fit into Glen Ellen’s landscape and minimized water usage.
There’s no guarantee that every ADU applicant will be as conscious of their neighbors, a fact that alarms Glen Ellen’s Deb Pool.
“This feels like the Wild West,” Pool said, noting that early settlers essentially did whatever they wanted without any supervision.
Pool doesn’t like the fact that the streamlined process all but eliminates local feedback. “Nobody knows what you’re doing,” she said of potential developers. “There’s no place for input. There’s no public input.”
The new regulations also leave room to supersede covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC& Rs) set in place by homeowner associations to protect a neighborhood’s identity. With a 60-day permit process and no room for public input, Pool says there is plenty of potential for eyesores to get erected.
Pool isn’t opposed to ADUs in principle. “Not all ADUs are bad,” she said. But she questioned if 60 days is a long enough time frame for county officials to truly investigate ADU proposals. She suggested that some ADUs might create parking and traffic woes if not planned efficiently, and she also wondered if some potential developers will be able to take into consideration another serious crisis in California — a water shortage.
Dunn said the county researches waterways and resources before approving permits, but Pool wonders if the investigation can be very reliable on a 60-day approval plan.
Local developer Stephen Sorkin is an advocate for the new regulations. “It’s a huge help,” he said. “It gives the developer certainty.” Sorkin and his wife just finished a redevelopment project that includes ADUs on Arnold Drive.
As for potential concerns, Sorkin said developers “still must adhere to the published criteria … and zoning ordinances.”
Sorkin said his goal was to help locals by providing housing that is “affordable by design,” adding “these are rental communities for people who live and work in Glen Ellen.”
Pool doesn’t entirely agree, saying Sorkin’s project, at two stories, is too tall and doesn’t entirely fit into the area’s environment.
Since this specific project by Sorkin has wrapped, his first real test of the local regulations will be at an upcoming project he is planning in the area of the Sonoma Mission Inn.
While the regulations unveiled this year provide some streamlining and simplicity, there are still plenty of guidelines to follow. Depending on the size and scope of the project, the unit might be a standard accessory dwelling unit or a junior ADU. Some restrictions have changed, but local zoning ordinances still play a role in developments, as do easements.
Visit PermitSonoma.org to find the most recent regulations.