Amid state’s housing crisis, Laguna Beach streamlines ‘granny flat’ rules

Debbie Lewis was among the first local residents to add an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) to her historic 1927 Woods Cove home. The design retained the original garage doors and no changes were made to the home’s exterior. Moose and his humans moved into the one-bedroom unit last year and are now part of the neighborhood. Photo by Barbara McMurray

By Lou Ponsi, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach homeowners wanting to construct accessory dwelling units on their properties will now face fewer restrictions following the City Council’s unanimous approval of several amendments to city law.

Sometimes referred to as “granny flats”, accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, are independent housing units situated on the same lot as a single-family home. The modifications approved by the Council on Tuesday are designed to help Laguna Beach comply with a state mandate to provide more affordable housing.

The most concerning element of the revised ordinance for some councilmembers centered around the new state-mandated parking policies. Under state law, when a garage is demolished as part of the construction of an ADU, those off-street parking spaces are no longer required to be replaced.

But the homeowner does have to provide a parking space for the ADU, unless the home is within a half-mile of public transportation.

“I have two parking places now, I convert my garage and put up an ADU,” Mayor Bob Whalen, providing a hypothetical example. “I’ve now gone from one unit with two parking spaces to three units with no parking. That is what I feared.”

Most properties in the city limits will meet that half-mile criterion needed to avoid the on-site parking requirement, community development director Marc Wiener said.

Since August 2020, 70 ADU applications have been approved, with most averaging 506 square feet and involving the conversion of existing structures to ADUs, Wiener said.

The revised ordinance also requires architectural style, design, color, materials, and other elements of the ADU to be “similar” to the primary home on the property. Previously, the ordinance required the design of the ADU to be an “exact” match to the primary dwelling.

Elevated decks, previously prohibited on ADUs, will now be allowed up to three feet above adjacent, existing grade. To meet state law, ADUs can now be up to two stories, or 16-feet high. Laguna Beach’s rules previously limited them to a single story.

The previously drafted city law required ADUs to be constructed on a site not obstructing the view of neighboring properties. Any reference to view obstruction has been removed from the law, which now requires proposed ADUs taller than 16 feet to be subject to a design review process.

Additionally, all zoning, building, planning, and impact fees will be refunded under the new ordinance.

“The is the gateway to affordable housing and we need to start here,” Councilmember Peter Blake said. “It allows our next generation to live here and our elders to live here. This is the right thing at the right time.”

Laguna Beach Seniors, a local nonprofit that operates the Susi Q Senior Center and other programs for the elderly, supported ADUs as a way for older residents who may be house-rich but cash-poor to generate added income by renting out converted living space.

“We think this is a great ordinance,” said Cody Engle, vice-chair of the ADU subcommittee under the city’s Housing and Human Services Committee and board president for Laguna Beach Seniors. It satisfies the state requirements and recognizes what our needs are.”

The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing to consider approving a Housing Element update, a document that will guide housing development in Laguna Beach through 2029, at 6 p.m. on Dec. 1 in the Council Chambers. Community members are invited to provide comments on the plan in person or via Zoom. Hard copies are available upon request at the Community Development Department public counter during city hall business hours.

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  1. Question: The original ordnance had a proviso that after granting an ADU permit, it remains with the property forever and can never be undone. The theory being ADU’s add additional housing. So, if I add an ADU and I sell my home and the family wants to use the space for their own family,… will be against the law!


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