Almanac

News - May 7, 2014

Granny unit regulations approved in Menlo Park

by Sandy Brundage

If you live on a lot in Menlo Park that's at least 6,000 square feet and meets some other requirements, 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.

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.

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