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Menlo Park: Granny unit regulations approved

Council decides not to reduce minimum lot size

If you live on a lot in Menlo Park that's at least 6,000 square feet and meets some other requirements, including setbacks, you can now start planning to build your dream granny unit.

The council voted 4-1, with Mayor Ray Mueller dissenting, on April 29 to approve a set of regulations governing construction and use of granny, also known as secondary, units.

Under the new rules, secondary units may be built up to 700 square feet in size to allow access for disabled residents.

Although the Planning Commission recommended reducing the minimum lot size that would qualify for a secondary unit to around 5,000 square feet, the council decided instead to stick with a larger cut-off for now, after hearing from Belle Haven residents worried about the impact to their neighborhood and seeing photos of multiple cars crammed into one yard.

Former Planning Commissioner Harry Bims said the problem in Belle Haven is that having two dwelling units on a single property conflicts with the prohibition against overnight parking. "They have no place to park their cars," he told the council, so residents end up paving over more and more of the yard to widen the driveway.

Sheryl Bims agreed, saying that although the city staff thinks Belle Haven doesn't have a parking problem, "it's not a problem, it's a crisis."

This left the council facing a quandary. Vice Mayor Cat Carlton commented that "part of the city is begging us to do this and then another part of the city is asking us not to ... for parking reasons. How do we resolve that?" She looked to the police chief for comment.

Police Chief Bob Jonsen sided with those asking to restrict secondary units to larger properties. "The size of the lot is a huge factor. If you try to put two pieces of property on a 5,000 square foot lot, you're just asking for problems."

Councilman Peter Ohtaki supporting setting the limit at 6,000 square feet "for now," and then revisiting the cut-off in a year after the city has had more time to work out the parking issues.

Mayor Mueller told the Almanac he dissented because he "was uncomfortable making it easier to add density within ... our single-family neighborhoods as a blanket proposition," given that the specific plan, whether left intact or amended, already allows density to increase along El Camino Real.

According to the city's data, requiring lots to be at least 6,000 square feet disqualifies an estimated 1,440 lots from being able to accommodate a second unit.

The council also approved a process to allow owners of modified accessory structures to apply to legally convert those to granny units within an approximate one-year time frame. Finally, owners who want to rent out granny units need to meet the following requirements:

* As long as both units are not occupied, the owner does not have to live on the property.

* The owner may, after living on the property for at least two years, register with the city to rent out both units for up to four years, providing a property management plan, a reason for absence and a parking plan.

* If the owner wants to keep renting out both units for longer than four years, a use permit, costing approximately $4,000, will be required.

Senior Planner Deanna Chow said that if residents are thinking about building a secondary unit, a good first step would be to come to the Planning Department between 1 and 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. on alternating Fridays to take a preliminary look at their property with staff. She suggests bringing information about the existing square footage, other structures such as garages on the site, and a site plan.

Costs

The new unit won't come cheap, with an estimated $20,000 in permits and other fees for construction. In May the city, as part of its annual community development fee review, will look at ways to lower the cost.

Granny units may not save money for tenants, either. Recent posts on Craigslist advertised 350-square-foot studios for rent at $1,950 a month in Menlo Park.

Kate Comfort Harr, executive director of HIP Housing, a nonprofit that specializes in finding affordable housing for San Mateo County residents, said that granny units are a great opportunity to increase the number of units available for those earning less than $85,000 a year. But: "There really needs to be a new mind set -- an attitude shift that helps people to want to charge a reasonable rent because it's the right thing to do and it will keep our community healthy and balanced," she said.

She's proposed creating a tax credit for landlords willing to rent to lower-income people, but said it's only in the beginning stages of development.

Comments

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 6, 2014 at 7:07 pm

The city isn't serious about expanding housing if they intend to charge $20,000 in permit fees. Only the affluent will be able to build a granny unit and average folks and seniors will be priced out of the process. It is shameful.


Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on May 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm

I would encourage the city to look to Portland, OR for guidance. Portland has waived development fees for in-law units until 2016 saving the residents $7,500-$15,000 in permit fees. As a result, many people are able to build these units and the outcome has been excellent. People love them.


Posted by Curious about parking, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 7, 2014 at 11:26 pm

I found it interesting that Councilman Peter Ohtaki made a comment about working out parking issues before revisiting the lot size limit for granny units. Setting aside the question of granny units, I would welcome revisiting Menlo Park's overnight parking limitations.

We have a small lot, as do many of our neighbors, and the ability to park one car on the street overnight would be a huge benefit. I also don't think there would be any negative impact to the neighborhood to have a few extra cars on the street. There are already quite a few parked on the street during the day, and limiting overnight parking to residents (even capping it at one per house) wouldn't add a huge number of cars on the street.

I also regularly bike to work from Menlo Park through Palo Alto, and I don't notice any problem biking on the streets in Palo Alto where there are more cars on the street.


Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on May 8, 2014 at 2:12 pm

The most immediately noticeable difference between the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, and East Palo Alto, is that Menlo Park doesn't allow overnight parking. In East Palo Alto, it's a chaotic mess, and I think it opens up opportunities for illegal activities. I wouldn't be surprised if there are more homes in EPA that are packed like sardines as a result of overnight street parking. In a neighborhood with less crime problems and fewer rental homes, maybe it would be OK, but I wouldn't be too quick about allowing this. It makes managing parking a bit more difficult, but there's value in the prohibition.


Posted by Dharma, a resident of Menlo Park: other
on May 8, 2014 at 4:38 pm

The issue discussed was that a front yard full of cars makes a neighborhood look pretty ugly. people have a right to care about this. So why don't we just prohibit more than 20' wide driveway - we already prohibit parking off the driveway but dont enforce it. Come to think, we don't enforce any quality of life ordinances in Menlo, just give parking tickets. Mr Ohtaki, do we need to spell out what's needed?


Posted by Richard, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on May 11, 2014 at 8:39 pm

I just don't understand the enormous cost of permit fees for building a small granny unit. Where precisely does this money go and how come it is so expensive? I'd really like to see a breakdown of the fees.

These initial costs ensure that only the affluent can afford to build those units.--In other words, just a few people can afford to do so. Is that the hidden purpose of those fees? OIs it just pay lip service to the goal of affordable housing while making it impossible to actually build affordable housing?


Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 14, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Richard,

There was a council meeting last night during which the council was to address lowering or waiving the fees for these small units. You are correct, without a reduction in fees only a few people will be able to afford them and those are not the people who need these units the most.

I am looking forward to learning what the council decides,affordable housing or lip service

.



Posted by Love(d) Menlo Park, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on May 14, 2014 at 2:18 pm

There have been a few comments noted in the previous comments relating to the secondary units in residential area.

Parking- If you want to park on the street, move to Palo Alto or Redwood City. The beauty of Menlo Park is NOT allowing overnight parking on the street. This limits the number of abandoned cars left on the streets and helps our police department patrol our streets at night.

Permit costs - Agreed, the cost of the permit should be looked into. At approximately $100 / hour it would appear that our planning and building departments take 200 hours to review and inspect a set of architectural plans before issuing a permit. Either the plans are absolutely horrible, or the planning and building staffs need to find a place to charge their time. How many of these plans are outsourced to contract plan check reviewers increasing the costs for the residents? Should all residential plan checks be done by our employees and outsource all commercial developement? Would that be less expensive?

Increasing the number of secondary dwelling units in Menlo Park on paper by lowering the minimum lot square footage from 7,000 to 6,000 is only a smoke and mirror solution to a bigger problem. We are increasing the job to home ratio without addressing the fact that we are increasing the office square footage at a faster pace than the housing units.


Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 16, 2014 at 10:06 am

<<Permit costs - Agreed, the cost of the permit should be looked into. At approximately $100 / hour it would appear that our planning and building departments take 200 hours to review and inspect a set of architectural plans before issuing a permit. Either the plans are absolutely horrible, or the planning and building staffs need to find a place to charge their time. How many of these plans are outsourced to contract plan check reviewers increasing the costs for the residents? Should all residential plan checks be done by our employees and outsource all commercial developement? Would that be less expensive?>>

200 hours to approve a tiny second unit? It would seem the city is profiting handsomely from these units. Again, only the affluent will be able to afford them. Seniors and the less affluent need not apply.


Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on May 21, 2014 at 8:05 am

The city claims they want to encourage these units but at the May 13 City Council meeting they actually voted to INCREASE the fees. No reduction in fees or waivers. While these units would help the city meet their housing requirements, it appears to be a one-way street. The city receives the benefit while the homeowners incur huge costs with no help.


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