La Jolla Planners debate City’s ‘granny flat’ ordinance: Proposed changes would ease building rules for accessory units

The San Diego City Council is set to vote on a new ordinance, which would change the limitations on accessory units that could be built next to houses on existing properties, relaxing the regulations and making them easier to construct. At the La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) meeting, Aug. 3, the ordinance — and its perceived negative impact on La Jolla’s community character — was discussed.

LJCPA did not officially weigh-in on the proposed ordinance, but scheduled another discussion and possible vote for its next meeting, 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7 at La Jolla Rec Center. The City Council voted to support the ordinance at its July 24 meeting (during what’s known as a “first reading”), but it will need another vote following a “second reading.” Thirty days after the second reading vote, the ordinance will go into effect.

The City Council vote on the ordinance is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 12.

San Diego senior planner Marlon Pangilinan explained that companion units, sometimes referred to as “granny flats,” are defined as “secondary units, an accessory to a single-family unit that has independent facilities, like a kitchen.” He said they are usually found in single-family or multi-family zones and can be attached or detached from the main house.

“The State of California, recognizing that there is a serious housing affordability (issue), put out several Senate and Assembly bills that address the provision of accessory units,” he said, and that the City is voting on its own, modified ordinance. “(Accessory units) are a source of affordable housing. They are inexpensive to build. They typically do not require the acquisition of additional land, and they don’t require major infrastructure.”

The specifics

Under current regulations, “companion units” of no more than 700 square feet are allowed, but the new regulations would increase that maximum to 1,200 square feet and the new regulation would add what is known as a “junior unit” of no more than 500 square feet.

There is no requirement to increase available parking when the unit is within half mile from a major transit stop or if the unit is one city block from a bike station. With a junior unit, creation of additional parking is not required. In all other cases, the parking requirement has been reduced from one parking space per bedroom to one-half a parking space per unit with a minimum of one space.

Speaking in favor of the ordinance, architect Mark Lyon said, “The old ways of thinking about development in California are dead. We cannot continue to build communities out in the middle of nowhere … the State has realized that pushing new development out doesn’t work anymore. They are not looking at the reverse of that, which is to densify existing communities.”

However, several LJCPA board members were hesitant to support the San Diego version of the ordinance, largely due to concerns with how the City has altered it from what the State has proposed.

One of them, Phil Merten, said, “The City’s companion unit ordinance has been modified from the state law to allow a companion unit to encroach in the rear and side yard setbacks up to the property line (so long as it is ) … constructed above a permanent garage or other non-habitable accessory structure. If you live on an alley in town, you may have an accessory unit not more than 15 feet of height built adjacent the property line.

The City’s modification of the ordinance now allows you to take that non-habitable structure and build a new companion unit on top, right up to the side of the property. Since there are no height limits on that, you could effectively go to a 30-foot roof on the side property line.”

Merten also questioned the affordability of these units and whether they would effectively become short-term vacation rentals.

“The City Council added the proviso that the unit be occupied as a rental unit for a minimum of 30 days, with the idea being to disqualify short-term vacation rentals. But I dare say, in areas close to the beach, you can capture more rent revenue by renting it for a month, but tell the renter they only need to be there while they are on vacation, say 7 to 10 days, than you might by renting it on a long-term basis,” Merten opined.

He approximated that each unit would cost $150,000 to build. With that figure in mind, LJCPA trustee Janie Emerson added, “If I am going to spend $150,000 to put one of these on my property, I’m not going to rent it out at $800 a month. No one is. You are going to rent it out for whatever you can rent it out for. There is no ceiling on that and there is no one that is going to adjudicate that. So this is not affordable housing.”

The ordinance also changes the terms of owner occupancy from “record owner shall reside on premises” to “may require record owner to reside on premises.” The City’s proposed change also states companion units do not have to be owner-occupied.

La Jolla Shores

One area of particular concern is La Jolla Shores, which has its own Planned District Ordinance (PDO) with existing regulations on companion units, and is a community immediately adjacent to UC San Diego.

Although it does not have a maximum Floor-Area Ratio (built structure to property size), the La Jolla Shores PDO does note, under “Maximum Lot Coverage” that “No building or structure shall be erected, constructed, altered, moved in or enlarged to cover more than 60 percent of the lot or parcel.”

LJCPA trustee Helen Boyden questioned how, given the 60 percent lot coverage limitation, “how the Shores would fit it?” to the City’s proposed ordinance.

Emerson quipped, “This ordinance takes our PDO, both in La Jolla and La Jolla Shores, and shreds it and flushes it down the toilet.”

Wiggle room?

In reading the terms of the ordinance, community activist Darcy Ashley said she interpreted the intention as maintaining community character.

“There are a lot of items that allow for that. One of them is that there is no requirement for a blanket ordinance for the whole city, there is the capacity to tailor it for different communities based on different needs. The other thing is having the new units operate within the existing zoning requirements, one of the primary ones being floor area ratio (limits),” she said.

“I hope you will bring this back as an action and vote on … what meets the minimum of the State’s ordinance changes, not the City’s expanded version. Start with the minimum, see how that goes and adapt from there. In a year’s time, this should come back and be evaluated. How many units were produced? Where were they? Is it working?”

Agreeing, Merten said he wanted it on the next LJCPA agenda as an “action item” so the board could come up with a position and present that position to the City Council when Council members hear it for the second time.

La Jolla Community Planning Association next meets 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 7 at La Jolla Rec Center, 615 Prospect St.