An Accessory Dwelling Unit in North Downtown

The construction of a new three-story external accessory unit on the corner of Lexington and Poplar St. has provoked City planners to take a closer look at the current City ordinance which governs their construction. Accessory dwelling units (ADU) are housing units built either inside an existing house or on the same lot. Their use was permitted in 1993 as a way to encourage homeownership while still allowing for a certain degree of residential density.

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The Charlottesville Planning Commission will decide on a proposed change in the zoning ordinance that would increase restrictions on ADUs in the City. During a February 24, 2009 work session, the Commissioners discussed the new proposal and sought a consensus on future ADU regulations. This discussion is closely related to the larger issue of residential density in the city.

Commissioners discussed ADU restrictions at their February 24, 2009 work session

The proposed ordinance adds to existing restrictions for new external accessory units a maximum gross floor area of 40% of the primary dwelling or 900 sq. ft., whichever is less, and a 25 ft. maximum height. There would also be stricter setback limitations. Units will have to be set a minimum of either 5 feet or 10 feet away from the property line, depending on the height of the unit.

City planners see many advantages to ADUs. They can allow elderly residents to age in place by moving into an accessory, and renting out their primary dwelling. ADUs contribute to housing affordability, by allowing owners to supplement their mortgages with rental income.

“When done at the appropriate scale, ADUs can allow for a doubling in density without affecting the existing characteristics of the neighborhood,” wrote Melissa Celii of the Department of Neighborhood Development Services in a memo to the Planning Commission.

The challenge has been allowing the use of ADUs without adversely impacting the neighborhood. Planning staff have had to address complaints from neighbors when specific ADUs are considered too intrusive. The Commission focused on one example in particular that is currently being built on Poplar Street. The modernist accessory building technically does not exceed the height of the primary building, but many consider it to be out of character with the neighborhood. The new design standards seem to have been written with this case in mind.

Some Commissioners thought the Poplar case might be a red herring. To frame the law according to the most extreme cases could have an unnecessary chilling effect on the use of ADUs in general.

Commissioner Dan Rosensweig said, “staff has talked numerous times about how we want to encourage accessory apartments, and if that is one of our goals further restrictions on the size of accessory apartments seems contrary to encouraging that.”

Rosensweig, who lives in close proximity to the questionable ADU, thought the design seemed to him more objectionable than the size itself. He pointed out that another street-facing primary house in that lot would not be inappropriate. Commissioners Michael Osteen and Jason Pearson agreed that a subdivision of the lot would not be problematic in this case.

Image courtesy of the NDS

Image courtesy of the NDS

Osteen sees the logic of limiting the size of ADUs at some point, but he called into question the current limitation of two persons per unit.

“I could easily see a couple in there that, the day they bring home a baby from the hospital, they are in violation,” Osteen said. Staff, perhaps jokingly, concurred that, according to the language of the current ordinance, this family would have to be “booted out.”

The city began registering ADUs in 2003, and there are currently 45 total according to City records, split fairly evenly between internal and external units. However, planning staff estimates that there are at least 300 in existence. Many are falling beneath the radar, and there are no good records on potential violations. Enforcement of the ordinance has been occurring in response to complaints from neighbors.

The discussion will be continued in a future Planning Commission public hearing, at which point the commissioners will make a decision about whether to recommend the proposed changes or not.

Daniel Nairn



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