News

Palo Alto plans more changes to rules on accessory dwelling units

City seeks more privacy protections and greater compliance with state laws

In 2021, Palo Alto saw the number of accessory dwelling units soar to 136, 112 of which were approved by the city. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

​​As accessory dwelling units proliferate throughout Palo Alto, the city is preparing to once again change the rules around the small structures as it tries to balance state requirements and local desires for privacy protections.

The latest round of revisions, which the Planning and Transportation Commission considered on Wednesday, pertain to basements, noise and new design guidelines for two-story accessory dwelling units. These include a prohibition on egress windows on walls that face an adjacent property line, restrictions on exterior lighting mounted above 7 feet and, where feasible, use of skylights in bathrooms and other spaces.

At the same time, city planners and commissioners are still working on their response to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which notified Palo Alto last year that its recently approved guidelines violate state laws and demanded that the city loosen some of its restrictions.

Despite the shifting legal landscape, local interest in accessory dwelling units continues to surge. In 2015, the city received only 10 permit applications for these structures. The number climbed to 75 in 2019 and to 78 in 2020. Last year, it soared to 136, according to a quarterly report that the City Council received last month. The city approved 112 of these structures.

"Every day is a new ADU question," Garrett Sauls, the city planner managing the revision process, said Wednesday. "It's been that way since 2017, really. It's been kind of a big-ticket item for most people."

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One of the areas that remains in dispute between the state agency and the city is height limits in flood zones. The state housing department noted in its letter that for most houses, the city allows some exemptions to the height limit to accommodate rules requiring a higher elevation for the ground floor in these areas. But the city does not extend this to accessory dwelling units, which are still subject to the 16-foot height limit. In that sense, the city has "impermissibly restricted the height of ADUs," David Zisser, assistant director for local government relations and accountability at the HCD, wrote to the city.

Palo Alto is in no rush, however, to allow greater heights. Jonathan Lait, the city's director of planning and community environment, argued in his response letter to the state agency that it is "unclear to the city how the failure to provide additional height above 16 feet represents an impermissible restriction on ADUs." He noted that the state housing department has indicated in conversations with the city that it would want to see as few restrictions as possible on accessory units.

"The only restriction here is on finished floor height in the flood zone, which cannot be waived or relaxed without impacts on health and safety," Lait wrote in the February letter. "Even in areas requiring the most extreme height above the base flood elevation, an ADU remains feasible within the 16-foot height limit."

John Geary, co-founder of Adobu, stands in front of the company's prototype studio in its Redwood City showroom. The company has built numerous accessory dwelling units in Palo Alto, which has seen a sharp increase in applications. Photo by Gennady Sheyner.

The city also is requesting more clarification about the state agency's finding that local "daylight plane" restrictions, which aim to regulate height and massing and protect neighbors' access to light and air, may be too restrictive, particularly if they result in limiting the height of the structures below the 16-foot limit established by the state.

Palo Alto has addressed most of the other comments from the state agency by adding clarifying language to make sure the local ordinance is consistent with state law. But according to Sauls, the city planner, Palo Alto is waiting for more information from the state housing department before it proceeds with the more significant changes that the state agency has called for.

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The planning commission fully endorsed the cautious approach, even as it endorsed a host of relatively minor changes. These include affirming that accessory dwelling units should be allowed to have basements, as long as these basements do not encroach into a 4-foot setback area by the property line.

Vice Chair Doria Summa said she was concerned about the impacts of basements on groundwater and, in some cases, on trees. But she spoke for the majority when she noted that most other residential properties are allowed to build basements.

"It seems to me if other people can build basements, why can't the ADU have a basement, for fairness?" Summa asked.

There was less consensus on the issue of whether accessory dwelling units should be allowed to have noise-producing equipment such as air conditioners near the property line separating them from the neighboring home. While staff suggested that loosening the rules around equipment could allow for more flexibility for accessory dwelling units on small lots, planning commissioners split 3-3 on the issue, with Chair Ed Lauing, Vice Chair Doria Summa and Commissioner Bryna Chang all opposing the change.

Commissioners also voted 6-0, with Commissioner Cari Templeton absent, to approve new privacy protections for two-story accessory dwelling units, including a guideline requiring exterior lighting fixtures to be directed downward to prevent light spillover onto adjacent properties.

"These added measures would provide guidance for applicants and additional protections for neighbors from the potential privacy impacts from new second units," a report from planning staff states.

The commission plans to continue its discussion and make a formal recommendation on Aug. 10, after which time the revised ordinance will go to the council for approval. While rules will continue to change based on council and the state housing department's guidance, architect Randy Popp urged the commission on Wednesday to bring some clarity to the ever-shifting landscape.

"Many of my clients have been anxiously waiting for the results of these discussions and we're all looking forward to a resolution, whatever that may be," Popp said. "Looming over all of this is anticipation of HCD's response but for now, we just need to make some decisions and move on."

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Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Palo Alto plans more changes to rules on accessory dwelling units

City seeks more privacy protections and greater compliance with state laws

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Jul 14, 2022, 9:27 am

​​As accessory dwelling units proliferate throughout Palo Alto, the city is preparing to once again change the rules around the small structures as it tries to balance state requirements and local desires for privacy protections.

The latest round of revisions, which the Planning and Transportation Commission considered on Wednesday, pertain to basements, noise and new design guidelines for two-story accessory dwelling units. These include a prohibition on egress windows on walls that face an adjacent property line, restrictions on exterior lighting mounted above 7 feet and, where feasible, use of skylights in bathrooms and other spaces.

At the same time, city planners and commissioners are still working on their response to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which notified Palo Alto last year that its recently approved guidelines violate state laws and demanded that the city loosen some of its restrictions.

Despite the shifting legal landscape, local interest in accessory dwelling units continues to surge. In 2015, the city received only 10 permit applications for these structures. The number climbed to 75 in 2019 and to 78 in 2020. Last year, it soared to 136, according to a quarterly report that the City Council received last month. The city approved 112 of these structures.

"Every day is a new ADU question," Garrett Sauls, the city planner managing the revision process, said Wednesday. "It's been that way since 2017, really. It's been kind of a big-ticket item for most people."

One of the areas that remains in dispute between the state agency and the city is height limits in flood zones. The state housing department noted in its letter that for most houses, the city allows some exemptions to the height limit to accommodate rules requiring a higher elevation for the ground floor in these areas. But the city does not extend this to accessory dwelling units, which are still subject to the 16-foot height limit. In that sense, the city has "impermissibly restricted the height of ADUs," David Zisser, assistant director for local government relations and accountability at the HCD, wrote to the city.

Palo Alto is in no rush, however, to allow greater heights. Jonathan Lait, the city's director of planning and community environment, argued in his response letter to the state agency that it is "unclear to the city how the failure to provide additional height above 16 feet represents an impermissible restriction on ADUs." He noted that the state housing department has indicated in conversations with the city that it would want to see as few restrictions as possible on accessory units.

"The only restriction here is on finished floor height in the flood zone, which cannot be waived or relaxed without impacts on health and safety," Lait wrote in the February letter. "Even in areas requiring the most extreme height above the base flood elevation, an ADU remains feasible within the 16-foot height limit."

The city also is requesting more clarification about the state agency's finding that local "daylight plane" restrictions, which aim to regulate height and massing and protect neighbors' access to light and air, may be too restrictive, particularly if they result in limiting the height of the structures below the 16-foot limit established by the state.

Palo Alto has addressed most of the other comments from the state agency by adding clarifying language to make sure the local ordinance is consistent with state law. But according to Sauls, the city planner, Palo Alto is waiting for more information from the state housing department before it proceeds with the more significant changes that the state agency has called for.

The planning commission fully endorsed the cautious approach, even as it endorsed a host of relatively minor changes. These include affirming that accessory dwelling units should be allowed to have basements, as long as these basements do not encroach into a 4-foot setback area by the property line.

Vice Chair Doria Summa said she was concerned about the impacts of basements on groundwater and, in some cases, on trees. But she spoke for the majority when she noted that most other residential properties are allowed to build basements.

"It seems to me if other people can build basements, why can't the ADU have a basement, for fairness?" Summa asked.

There was less consensus on the issue of whether accessory dwelling units should be allowed to have noise-producing equipment such as air conditioners near the property line separating them from the neighboring home. While staff suggested that loosening the rules around equipment could allow for more flexibility for accessory dwelling units on small lots, planning commissioners split 3-3 on the issue, with Chair Ed Lauing, Vice Chair Doria Summa and Commissioner Bryna Chang all opposing the change.

Commissioners also voted 6-0, with Commissioner Cari Templeton absent, to approve new privacy protections for two-story accessory dwelling units, including a guideline requiring exterior lighting fixtures to be directed downward to prevent light spillover onto adjacent properties.

"These added measures would provide guidance for applicants and additional protections for neighbors from the potential privacy impacts from new second units," a report from planning staff states.

The commission plans to continue its discussion and make a formal recommendation on Aug. 10, after which time the revised ordinance will go to the council for approval. While rules will continue to change based on council and the state housing department's guidance, architect Randy Popp urged the commission on Wednesday to bring some clarity to the ever-shifting landscape.

"Many of my clients have been anxiously waiting for the results of these discussions and we're all looking forward to a resolution, whatever that may be," Popp said. "Looming over all of this is anticipation of HCD's response but for now, we just need to make some decisions and move on."

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2022 at 11:10 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2022 at 11:10 am

Privacy issues and light plane issues are the most likely issues that will affect adjoining properties. A neighbor who has had plenty of privacy and plenty of light will obviously not be happy and object to anything that will mean they are overlooked or miss out on sun in part of their property. It will lead to disharmony between neighbors and that can be a huge problem for all concerned.


Julia Moss
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jul 14, 2022 at 2:43 pm
Julia Moss, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2022 at 2:43 pm

The city should also consider another housing option with an additional designation...Mobile Accessory Dwelling Unit (MADU).

That will allow some Palo Alto residents to rent out their vacant trailers and RVs if so desired OR allow transient RVs to pay and park in their front driveways.


MyFeelz
Registered user
JLS Middle School
on Jul 14, 2022 at 6:07 pm
MyFeelz, JLS Middle School
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2022 at 6:07 pm

The state ADU handbook doesn't mention mobile adu's or tiny homes on wheels. This has presented conflicts in other communities where they have tried to write their own rules. The state has very specific parameters regarding what qualifies as an ADU, and units smaller than 400 sq ft. However, I am not an engineer or otherwise knowledgeable enough to say what "qualifies" as an ADU per the California legislature. What I *do* know is whatever they want to call it, it has to fit within legal specifications in order to be fit for habitation. And if I owned a house with a big back yard and somebody parked an RV up against my fence with a generator running all day and night, and the smell from their toilet pipe (after being planted in a hole big enough to fit it) started coming my way on a breezy afternoon, I would call code enforcement immediately. But, good luck getting code enforcement to make them move out. An owner of an ADU has five years to fix or demolish something that doesn't meet state specs. So, though there is much excitement about "helping humanity" or something (this is tongue-in-cheek, because I think anybody who wants to build an ADU is probably more interested in making money than making the world a better place), think long and hard before you consider renting out your RV in your driveway and call it an ADU. No matter what the size, it has to have electricity and sewer. Built in. Not an extension cord and a bucket. But I can already see many people's hands tickling themselves with glee thinking an extension cord and bucket could bring in a LOT of rental income during the five year period before the State will bulldoze it. Even if it's a health and safety code violation, there is the question of who is going to enforce this. This is the State document governing ADU's. Web Link


RPopp
Registered user
Monroe Park
on Jul 14, 2022 at 7:55 pm
RPopp, Monroe Park
Registered user
on Jul 14, 2022 at 7:55 pm

@MyFeelz - I hardly know where to start in responding but I'll just say that in Palo Alto there is no circumstance under which you can rent space in an RV on a property zoned for low-density residential use. It's illegal and the police, not code enforcement, would appropriately deal with that.


MyFeelz
Registered user
Juana Briones School
on Jul 15, 2022 at 12:09 am
MyFeelz, Juana Briones School
Registered user
on Jul 15, 2022 at 12:09 am

Rpopp you could start right there. I was only going to include a weblink for the handbook but then there was this (about MHOW): "That will allow some Palo Alto residents to rent out their vacant trailers and RVs if so desired OR allow transient RVs to pay and park in their front driveways." It echoed the sentiment of residents of another community I lived in when the state legislated the ADU's and immediately everyone wanted to convert the RV in their driveway to an ADU or let someone bring their own RV and rent their driveway. That's not an ADU it's an RV and it flies in the face of all of the health and safety codes required of ADUs. But as I said, I am not an expert.


RPopp
Registered user
Monroe Park
on Jul 15, 2022 at 5:55 pm
RPopp, Monroe Park
Registered user
on Jul 15, 2022 at 5:55 pm

Julia Moss seems to be suggesting MADUs be considered but again, until rules change, that would be completely illegal in Palo Alto. (I honestly cannot see it ever being allowed partially for the simple reasons you already described)


Chris
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Jul 16, 2022 at 7:55 am
Chris, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Jul 16, 2022 at 7:55 am
Meghan Roth
Registered user
Stanford
on Jul 16, 2022 at 10:48 am
Meghan Roth, Stanford
Registered user
on Jul 16, 2022 at 10:48 am

There are already some MADUs in Palo Alto that serve to accommodate immediate family members and temporary house guests.

This endeavor is probably not illegal because no money is changing hands.


theAlex
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Jul 17, 2022 at 10:29 pm
theAlex, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Jul 17, 2022 at 10:29 pm

@MyFeelz:

You must be new here. This kind of stuff hasn't, doesn't, won't, and shouldn't happen.


We Are The People
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Jul 20, 2022 at 11:59 pm
We Are The People, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jul 20, 2022 at 11:59 pm

With ALL this Traffic?
Where do You people figure it comes from??
Building ADU's & Inviting More People to move in?
Here's a short-cut. Take all those empty Offices that
were left from people that wisely decided to work from
home.Turn those into living spaces.
Thats where a lot of professionals were sleeping anyway.


RPopp
Registered user
Monroe Park
on Jul 21, 2022 at 8:25 am
RPopp, Monroe Park
Registered user
on Jul 21, 2022 at 8:25 am

Hi @ We Are The People -
Can you share your data sources? I'd like to understand your statement, "Thats [sic] where a lot of professionals were sleeping anyway." Was this in the past, or is this happening now? What do you mean by "a lot"? Also, which people are you? I don't think I know anyone who shares this exact viewpoint so I'm wondering if you can offer some information about which people you represent. Thanks


Jackie Brown
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jul 21, 2022 at 9:29 am
Jackie Brown, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jul 21, 2022 at 9:29 am

MADUs present a potential public health problem if they are not connected to a public sewer system.

On the other hand, if these mobile units are used solely for sleeping and meals, they are relatively safe though they may be viewed as a continuing eyesore to some residents.


Local news junkie
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Jul 23, 2022 at 5:57 am
Local news junkie, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Jul 23, 2022 at 5:57 am

MADUs would be a major eyesore. Bad idea.


MyFeelz
Registered user
JLS Middle School
on Jul 23, 2022 at 4:38 pm
MyFeelz, JLS Middle School
Registered user
on Jul 23, 2022 at 4:38 pm

You're right theAlex, I only started residing a stone's throw away in San Mateo County in 1975, though I worked in PA before moving here, so what could I possibly know about MHOW encroaching into residential areas without permits, other than what I have seen with my own eyes. "Shouldn't" is the operative word in your statement. It doesn't mean it doesn't happen.


We Are The People
Registered user
Menlo Park
on Jul 24, 2022 at 7:01 pm
We Are The People, Menlo Park
Registered user
on Jul 24, 2022 at 7:01 pm

@RPopp
You can google this information. They don't allow links to be posted on here.
Web Link


James
Registered user
Midtown
on Jul 26, 2022 at 8:54 am
James, Midtown
Registered user
on Jul 26, 2022 at 8:54 am

Just a side note, Berkeley is proposing to apply rent control to ADU.

Web Link


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