Almanac

News - February 19, 2014

Menlo Park works on 'granny unit' regs

by Sandy Brundage

The Menlo Park Planning Commission continued its quest to figure out how to encourage construction of secondary units, also known as "granny units," while simultaneously preventing the proliferation of miniature real estate empires built in one's backyard.

During a study session held on Feb. 10, Commissioner Katie Ferrick took issue with a clause in the granny unit ordinance that requires the owner to live on the property. She pointed out that residents may move at some point in the future after building a secondary unit, but not want to sell the property. So why not let them rent out both the main and the granny unit?

Ms. Ferrick said the rule treats renters as second-class citizens and something to be afraid of. "And I don't like it; it's elitist," she said.

Commission chair John Kadvany passed along the concerns of a neighbor that was worried that having no owner present would lead to "half-baked" granny unit construction and not benefit the neighborhood.

The rule does present a disincentive to building granny units, according to Commissioner Ben Eiref, who said the spirit of the process was supposed to be encouraging construction.

With Mr. Kadvany dissenting, the commission voted 5-1, with Henry Riggs absent, to let city staff know they consider the clause too restrictive.

Also a disincentive: The cost of building a granny unit, Mr. Bressler said, which he estimated could easily reach $20,000 just for permits and similar fees.

Staff replied that fees will be reviewed by the City Council in March, which may choose to use money from the general fund to subsidize the cost. However, other associated costs, such as school impact, fire district and sanitary district fees, aren't up to the city.

Other considerations included whether to reduce the required minimum lot size for a secondary unit to 5,750 square feet; allowing accessory buildings, such as garages, of up to 640 square feet to be converted to granny units; and limiting the number and type of plumbing fixtures to two within an accessory building to differentiate those buildings from secondary units. If a structure has three types — such as a toilet, sink and shower — it would then count as a habitable, i.e. granny, unit. The classification matters in terms of determining the size of the required setbacks.

The process of fine-tuning the granny unit ordinance will continue; such units must have a kitchen, for example, but as staff noted, the city then needs to define what counts as a kitchen.

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