Backyard Cottage Debate Continues

The inclusion of backyard cottages has become the most controversial topic relating to Raleigh's new rewrite of its zoning code, known as the Unified Development Ordinance.

Backyard cottages proved to be a hot topic last summer before the Council even got a hold of the code from the Planning Commission. Some people want backyard cottages, some people don’t, and even a potential compromise has many people objecting.

When adopted, the Unified Development Ordinance, or UDO, will replace Raleigh's current zoning code. The UDO is the code that creates laws around the 2030 Comprehensive Plan.

Related: Read more about the UDO.

The Raleigh City Council has been reviewing the UDO chapter-by-chapter in weekly, Monday afternoon workshops since September.

The Background
Backyard cottages, also known as granny flats, are accessory dwelling units. Accessory dwelling units are independent living areas on the same piece of property as single-family house.

For example, an apartment over a garage or in the basement of a single-family house is considered an accessory dwelling unit. Backyard cottages are detached from the main house, but often have similar design characteristics.

 

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An example of an accessory dwelling. This photo was taken on a property in Wake County, outside Raleigh city limits.

Backyard cottages in Raleigh would have to meet all building code requirements and would have a maximum occupancy of two people. The size of the cottage would vary from 450 to 800 square feet depending on the size of the property.

Raleigh planning staff included backyard cottages in the UDO to add variety to the city's housing stock. Backyard cottages could also offer affordable living in the city's most desirable neighborhoods.

An elderly landlord could rent out his or her backyard cottage to a young college student for an affordable price and some help around the house. Backyard cottages can also be used for elderly relatives or adult children who seek some freedom, while living with supporting family members.

The Legal Issue
Most of the backyard cottage debate comes from one central issue: the city can't legally require the owner of the cottage to live on the property.

While the city has required that property owners live on the same property as their accessory dwelling units in the past, a 2008 court case out of Wilmington has changed that.

Wilmington resident Broadus Hill constructed an apartment above the garage of one of his properties, but did not live in the house. When he was cited for violating the city code, Hill sued to have the case thrown out on the basis that the code was unconstitutional.

This claim was upheld by the North Carolina court of appeals.

Because the city can't require the owner to live on the property, backyard cottage opponents say this will open up the door for neglectful landlords to add cheap housing to problem areas.

The Debate Continues
Backyard cottages were discussed at the Nov. 14 UDO workshop where more than 20 people spoke.

The issue was discussed again during a special meeting of the Comprehensive Planning Committee meeting last week. At that time, participants discussed a possible compromise between the two parties.

Neighborhoods would be able to apply for a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District that would allow backyard cottages.

Typically, NCODs are used to conserve the character of an existing area, not allow additions.

The NCOD would allow backyard cottages to be built in the neighborhoods that want them, while keeping them out of the neighborhoods that don't.

But, backyard cottage supporters say that the overlay process is onerous and will dissuade residents from applying for one.

“There are clearly two camps,” said Councilor and Committee Chair Russ Stephenson. “One that believes that this is going to be a benefit to my community and one that believes this is going to be a detriment for my community.”

Stephenson said the UDO is about putting the right rules in the right places and an overlay would put backyard cottage rules in areas that what them.

But, he said he envisioned an overlay similar to that of front-yard parking. In November a council-initiated overlay went into effect that put in place special parking regulations for a portion of Southwest Raleigh.

Councilor Bonner Gaylord agreed with planning staff's original recommendation and said if the city is going to do an opt-in for backyard cottages then they “might as well not do it at all.”

Gaylord argued that backyard cottages would be prohibitive just based on cost.

“A backyard cottage is the most expensive way possible to add living space,” he said.

It's much cheaper, he said, to add on an attached apartment to an existing house than it is to build an entirely new structure that needs its own plumbing and electric lines.

During the public comment period, resident Josh Whiton agreed. He said slumlords will just slap a structure on an existing rental property before building a backyard cottage.

“I don't think that this backyard cottage thing is their MO,” he said.

Whiton said the new generation of homeowners and renters want smaller spaces and that Raleigh should allow those small homes to flourish. By adding the overlay it would make the process even more difficult.

Nicole Alvarez, a Raleigh-based architect and designer, began Raleigh Accessory Dwellings, a website that provides information about the backyard cottage debate.

“I agree that opting in will be so strapping that it's pretty much a death sentence for the type of building that we're talking about now,” she said.

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A backyard cottage, also known as a "granny flat" or accessory dwelling.

With only 3 percent of properties in Portland, Ore. — a city comparable city to Raleigh — having backyard cottages, Alvarez said it doesn't seem to be a popular option and the abuse might be even less.

Alverez said she hopes the conversation continues about how to make backyard cottages work rather than a blanket yes or no. She suggested implementing design standards and issuing a trial run that could be reviewed in a few years.

Still, some residents don't want to see backyard cottages included in the city at all.

Mary-Bell Pate said the city doesn't have enough inspectors to keep up with violations as it is.

Slumlords, Pate said, will jump on the older neighborhoods because the properties are cheaper, and then add accessory housing. Also, older neighborhoods don't typically have restrictive covenants that would prohibit backyard cottages.

Those who don't want backyard cottages shouldn't have the financial burden of opting out, she said.

Councilor Thomas Crowder has been a staunch lobbyist against backyard cottages since the beginning. He spoke during last week's Comprehensive Planning Committee meeting during the public comment period because he isn't a member of the committee.

“The opt-in was an olive branch to the folks who wanted this,” he said.

Crowder said there should be some kind of opt-in process for attached accessory dwelling units because those are an ongoing problem.

Another issue is how the city would enforce the two-person max regulation for backyard cottages. Crowder said the city already has trouble enforcing its existing rule, which is no more than four unrelated people living in one building.

“I think this is a matter … that needs to be referred to the city attorney's office,” Crowder said. “And we need to come up with a measure to address density violations that are not being enforced. Staff acts like they cannot enforce them.”

Next Steps
Backyard cottages will stay in committee to continue the discussion. Planning staff will look at other cities that have backyard cottages that are enforced by overlay districts to find out how those programs operate.

The next meeting will take place at 5 p.m. Dec. 12 in Council chambers at City Hall, 222 W. Hargett St.

 

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