Petaluma crafts granny unit policy

Officials ease restrictions on secondary units to encourage building, ebb housing crisis.|

As Petaluma’s housing market continues to constrict, the city council Monday unanimously voted to relax regulations on the construction of additional living spaces on residents’ land and in their homes.

The updates to the city’s zoning ordinance, driven by three state laws signed into effect last year, are intended to make it easier for residents to build accessory dwelling structures, or “granny units” that are attached to their residences or built separately on their properties. It also creates a new classification and associated rules for converting an existing bedroom in a single family home into independent living quarters, or a so-called “junior second unit.”

Accessory dwelling units are regarded as an economical way of providing housing for a wide range of family members, care providers or local employees inside the footprint of existing neighborhoods.

“Businesses and people in Petaluma are looking for ways to create more affordable housing and this is a brilliant strategy,” said Rachel Ginis, the founding director of Novato-based Lily Pad Homes, a nonprofit that supports education about the development of second units and sponsored the junior second unit legislation.

The new language bumps up the allowable size of a granny unit from 640 square feet to 720 square feet and reduces parking mandates if certain requirements, including proximity to public transportation or car sharing services are met.

Changes to state law require that accessory dwelling units are approved without discretionary review, but in the city’s designated historic districts or landmark sites, the creation of those units will be subject to additional review.

Junior second units are permitted inside any single-family home, but there can be only one junior second unit or granny unit on any residential lot. Junior second units can be no more than 500 square feet and must be developed within an existing bedroom. It is required to have a separate entry as well as a small “efficiency kitchen” and the homeowner must live on the property. The unit can include either a built-in bathroom or access to a restroom in the existing home.

In 2010, Petaluma adjusted its fee schedule to help cut costs for the development of granny units, with current fees for those units penciling out to $12,077 compared to $41,459 for a single family home, Senior Planner Scott Duiven said. Sonoma County recently adopted more lax rules on accessory dwelling units.

Petaluma’s new rules stipulate that second units must be rented for minimum of 31 days, an attempt to assure they are used for long-term housing. Those limitations will not apply to existing units.

The city continues to struggle to bring into compliance short term rental operators that shirk the city’s mandate to sign up for permits and pay taxes. The short term rental program will expire in 2018, and City Manager John Brown said the issue will be reviewed in about eight or nine months.

“I’ve talked to other communities and they run into the same problem – anytime you have these types of provisions, they’re difficult to enforce because it’s a monitoring program and depending on how many of those units you have, your ability to monitor them gets more and more difficult,” Duiven said. “So it tends to get monitored or addressed through neighborhood complaints … by at least including this provision you then have the ability to enforce those to not be vacation rentals.”

While an average of five granny units are built each year, it’s unclear how many more residents will be able to build such units while still meeting setback requirements.

“The reality is that probably the majority of residential parcels in the city of Petaluma don’t even have room to put in an accessory dwelling unit,” Duiven said.

Resident Christine Campbell, who works in the staffing industry, said the new regulations will pave the way for more affordable units to help attract and retain businesses and employees.

“Companies tell me every single day how hard it is for them to find workers for jobs that pay less than $20 an hour,” she said.

Resident Sharon Kirk said she’s long been hindered from building an accessory dwelling unit on her west side property because of existing limitations. Kirks and civil engineer Dave Alden said the tweaks are a stepping stone, but encouraged the city to go further in easing parking requirements, especially for homes near public transit stops.

The new language states that additional parking is not required for homes within a half mile of SMART stations, the Copeland Transit Mall and bus pads with scheduled stops every 20 minutes on weekdays, though none of the current stops have buses regularly arriving at that frequency. The council voted to remove parking requirements for homes in the area of the east side transit hub.

Adding parking can be costly, and in some cases, has stopped residents from constructing units.

“Here in Petaluma, we have people that we know are dependent on transit,” Alden said. “Whether because of age, disability or financial resources, they have learned to live with the 30 minute headways that we have on several of our routes – why would we not give those people the right to have a maybe less expensive ADU than what their current options are?”

Mayor David Glass acknowledging that the issue will likely be back to city decision makers for further discussion.

“This is probably the first bite at the apple – I can’t imagine we won’t be revisiting this multiple times over,” he said.

A second reading and adoption of the ordinance is tentatively scheduled for the Petaluma City Council’s Aug. 7 meeting.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at

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