By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
When Court Shannon heard that an 83-year-old co-worker could no longer afford to live in the city he had worked in all his life, something clicked.
“He had to move out of town because he couldn’t afford to live here anymore, and this is a guy who is an integral part of the Laguna community,” Shannon said. “We were thinking, if we had an accessory dwelling unit on our property, he could just live there.”
Lawmakers are also taking notice of the squeeze on affordable housing as the cost of living in California continues to skyrocket. Updates to a state law that went into effect Jan. 1 are meant to combat the shortage and encourage Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), also known as “granny flats,” on residential properties. Lawmakers want to encourage affordable housing, the lack of which could throw California’s work-life balance and the state’s economy out of whack.
The law now ensures ADUs do not incur additional utility connection fees, that local governments approve an ADU application if the unit is contained within a residence and setbacks, and waives parking requirements if the unit is within a half mile of public transit. With Laguna Beach’s trolley and bus service, most homes in the city would qualify.
The state encouraged cities to amend their existing ADU ordinances prior to January or they would be considered null and void.
Laguna Beach has yet to amend its ordinance, which the Planning Commission is set to review at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, in a community workshop at City Hall. City planners maintain the city’s ordinance remains valid because it falls under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission.
That stance makes a murky situation for people such as Shannon, who is trying to get plans for a 740-foot granny flat approved for his home at 1395 Temple Hills Drive. Shannon says though the house is within a half mile of a bus stop, making it compliant under the new state law, the city has resisted approval as they refer back to their ordinance which requires parking.
“If you think your existing ordinance applies, why do you need to do a new one? It’s clear they are out of compliance,” Shannon said.
Laguna Beach Community Development Director Greg Pfost sees it differently. Because Laguna Beach has a Local Coastal Program, a planning document that lays out ground rules for development, its existing ADU ordinance falls under Coastal Commission jurisdiction, not the state’s, he said. Any update to an ordinance also requires a revision to the Local Coastal Program, which needs Coastal Commission approval to take effect.
Greg Nickless, a policy analyst with the state’s Housing and Community Development Department, is trying to determine if Laguna’s insistence is legitimate.
“Is it still valid? We don’t know. We are trying to research it a little bit. This is a unique stance that Laguna Beach is taking with this,” Nickless said. “They should be following the updated state statute.”
Currently, Laguna allows second units of 12 feet in height and 640 square feet. The new state regulations almost double that to 1,200 square feet for both in-dwelling and detached units.
“We are looking at lowering what that threshold is, in order to allow for second dwelling units to serve as affordable or senior housing,” Pfost said.
Relaxing granny flat rules is long overdue and necessary, said Chris Quilter, president of Laguna Beach Seniors. It’s needed to ease the squeeze on longtime retired locals, who are living on fixed incomes and are often one rent increase away from having to leave Laguna, he said.
“Senior homeowners on fixed incomes are vulnerable,” Quilter said. “ADUs are great examples of how we can creatively re-use and adapt existing homes to meet an urgent need for affordable housing.”
Updates to the law are already loosening the grip of California’s housing crunch. The coastal community of Encinitas, for example, processed 24 applications for ADUs since the law took effect Jan. 1. City planners say that is double what it would be year-to-date without the state’s ease on restrictions.
Some applicants were waiting for the rules to change because of their inability to provide parking required under the previous ones, said Encinitas planner Kerry Kusiak. “When the state law came in, we just honored all of those numbers. We are trying to make it as easy as possible for folks who want to do this to do this.”
Coastal Commission staff sent a memo to cities after the law took effect, outlining they are required to adhere to state law, said Noaki Schwartz, a commission spokeswoman. The memo takes the position that Local Coastal Programs override exceptions in the ADU laws on parking requirements.
“So, areas subject to the Coastal Act can and will implement the ADU law differently than areas inland of the coastal zone, because that’s what the law says. Any conflicts can be addressed by Local Coastal Program updates, as contemplated by the memo,” Schwartz said.
Nickless says Laguna Beach is the only city he is aware of so far claiming their existing ordinance is still valid under the Coastal guidelines. Of California’s almost 500 cities, Nickless said the state has only received updates to about 50 city ordinances thus far.
“Cities and counties are not required to have an ordinance or update it,” Nickless said. “But if they don’t, they need to comply with the state statute.”