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Tacoma is about to make it easier for you to add second living space on your property

Rules for accessory dwelling units are under review in Tacoma.
Rules for accessory dwelling units are under review in Tacoma. Chirgwin ADU/accessorydwellings.org

Proposed regulatory changes that will come before Tacoma’s City Council next month might bring changes to many backyards and side lots in the city.

The rules for accessory dwelling units and detached accessory dwelling units would offer broader standards and more flexibility for homeowners to have them or add them, as well as provide an opportunity to help bring existing ones into legal compliance.

The units create another living space within, adjacent to or detached from a single-family home. This does not include “tiny home” dwellings on wheels. Detached and attached accessory dwelling units are required to have permanent foundations.

The proposals aim to simplify regulatory requirements, increase flexibility in design, size and location on a property, and update the time line and requirements for existing unpermitted accessory dwelling units to come into compliance.

The main change would involve allowing the detached units in single-family zoning districts.

Elliott Barnett, senior planner with the city, told The News Tribune via email that between 2013 and 2018, 62 accessory dwelling unit permits were issued, with eight of those being detached.

“Part of the reason that the total number of (detached units) is low is that they are not currently allowed in single-family zoning districts, and 75 percent of the area where residential development is allowed is zoned single-family,” Barnett wrote in response to questions.

That area includes downtown, mixed-use centers and residential zoning districts.

For now, only accessory dwelling units that are attached to or within a home are allowed in the single-family zoning districts.

Detached units are now permitted through the city’s residential infill pilot program, capped at a total of three, or under a “reasonable accommodation” provision that is “intended to allow households to care for family members with medical needs,” according to Barnett.

The residential infill pilot program was enacted in December 2015 as part of affordable/infill hosing code updates. In December 2017 the council set into motion a review by the Planning Commission to develop recommendations to help boost the number of accessory dwelling units in Tacoma. The decision was based on permit requests and calls from the public.

A series of meetings and outreach events ensued in 2018. The Planning Commission then sent its proposals to the city’s Infrastructure, Planning and Sustainability Committee.

After reviewing the proposals, that committee asked for the following: clarifying maximum size for the units, removing lot size and width minimums for accessory dwelling units to be permitted and adding design standards for detached units.

Barnett presented an overview of the recommendations at Tuesday’s public hearing before the City Council.

After Barnett’s presentation, council members heard many versions of a common theme as residents described their hopes to remodel or tear down an old garage or carport, or redo/add a second living area in their home.

Many said they wanted to be able to rent the extra space created by these units, in some cases so that they could afford to stay in their own homes. Others talked of giving their parents a separate living space to age in place, or a space for their kids to live.

Beyond allowing more units, another goal of the revisions is to address unpermitted units now in existence. For now, that total is unknown. These units are mainly discovered via complaints made to the city.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Council member Robert Thoms asked for information on the number of unpermitted units and how they could come into voluntary compliance under the revisions.

Such data could help address concerns from some residents “that what they see that is nonconforming now isn’t a foretaste of the future to come,” Thomas said.

People see “certain things that have been done in a sort of hodgepodge way heretofore, both legally and perhaps nonconforming and illegal, and want to know how any changes we put in place will afford for changes in that,” he told Barnett.

Another significant change proposed by the IPS committee would end the requirement that the property owner occupy one of the dwellings.

At Tuesday’s hearing, some expressed concern about a glut of vacation rentals or that outside investors would snap up properties for profit — all of which might diminish the end goal of creating more affordable housing.

Someone who spoke at the hearing suggested that if both the primary home and accessory unit became rentals, one should then be rented at a below-market rate.

Others supported the proposed change in owner occupancy, saying it could provide flexibility for owners or those seeking to buy, along with renters seeking to share rent costs or taking care of aging parents in a separate, affordable space.

Most were in favor of the revisions.

One who spoke against the proposal said adding units without increased fire or police protection raised safety issues and could impact the neighborhood’s quality of life. She also noted the plan had strayed from providing housing for aging relatives or affordable housing and instead was now all about “packing as many people into the city as possible.”

She went on to recommend leaving it up to neighbors as to whether they would allow the units, with 90 percent approval rating within a one-block radius. She also urged dedicated on-site parking.

Parking also came up among council members, with the possibility of adding incentives for those who build structures with parking underneath, particularly in areas already facing dense parking on streets near hospitals.

Another council study session on the recommended changes is set for Feb. 26. The March 5 and 19 council meetings are scheduled to include the first and second readings, respectively, of the proposed code changes. Written comments can be submitted before the final council reading to cityclerk@cityoftacoma.org.

More information on the project is at www.cityoftacoma.org/DADU.

The proposed changes, if approved, would go into effect early April.

Land-use open houses

The city’s Planning Services is holding open houses to provide information and gain feedback on land-use initiatives for 2019, including potential area-wide rezones. The intention is to implement the policies of the One Tacoma Plan to help develop connected neighborhoods with a variety of housing near schools, businesses, parks and other amenities.

Feb. 25: 6 to 8 p.m. Geiger Montessori, 7401 S. Eighth St., Tacoma

Feb. 27: 6 to 8 p.m. Stewart Middle School, 5010 Pacific Ave, Tacoma

Information: www.cityoftacoma.org/FLUM)

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