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Many Arlington homeowners can now build backyard cottages, thanks to a vote from the County Board.
Board members unanimously voted to loosen zoning regulations on so-called detached “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) during their Saturday meeting. The vote came after a contentious discussion with residents who said they feared the impacts of greater density and fewer trees in their neighborhoods.
“I am very pleased to support this motion for the benefits I think we’re going to see,” Board member Erik Gutshall said. “In my view the benefits far outweigh the potential impacts. To me it’s about housing. Period.”
The newly amended zoning rules allow Arlington homeowners to build detached ADUs on their property without first seeking county permission to do so — as long as it’s a one-family property. Previously, homeowners could only build an ADU inside their house (such as an English basement) or convert an existing outside structure into one.
Now, homeowners can build an ADU on an interior lot as long as the structure is at least 5 feet away from the property lines. ADUs built on corner lots must sit 5 feet from the side yard line and 10 feet from the rear yard line.
Previously, the County Board debated whether to allow 1-foot setback distances, but members ultimately nixed the idea, citing privacy concerns between neighbors and the fact it would only increase the number of ADU-eligible properties by 2 percent.
The exact distance didn’t matter to Urban Forestry Commission member Phil Klingelhofer, who said Saturday he had “serious concerns” about allowing any detached ADUs because laying sewer lines and footings anywhere could hurt the county’s tree canopy coverage.
“I want to make sure that we’re not… losing the forest for the trees,” Board member Katie Cristol replied. “Nationally, the biggest driver of emission and therefore climate change is sprawl development.”
Previously, several members of the activist Arlington Tree Action Group cited concerns about ADU construction killing trees and adding impervious surfaces to the county, which is already at a higher risk of floods.
Among the opponents was former County Board member John Vihstadt, who said the measure was part of a bigger mismanagement of density and natural resources.
“We must do better with managing our growth,” he said.
County Housing Planner Joel Franklin said since Jan 1, 2018, the county has approved 10 requests to build ADUs, three of which were converting existing structures into detached backyard cottage-style units.
ADUs are residential dwellings built on existing properties that are separate from the primary residence, like a basement apartment or a standalone structure — sometimes called a “granny flat.”
The County Board first approved standards for accessory dwellings in 2008. The Affordable Housing Master Plan in 2015 urged the creation of more ADUs as a low-cost way to boost housing options in Arlington. Regulations were loosened in 2017, but those changes only impacted apartments created within single-family homes, like in a garage or attic.
Staff at the May 6 Planning Commission meeting said there have been 10 new ADUs approved in Arlington since Jan. 1, 2018, demonstrating that there is some local interest in these types of residential units.
At that time, staff had recommended ADUs with a 1-foot side and rear setback from the property line, but the Board rejected it. Now staff is recommending a 5-foot setback, which they say is enough to mitigate the impact on a neighbor’s property but gives the homeowner enough flexibility within their own property.
Staff estimated between 37 percent and 44 percent of lots in Arlington could accommodate a detached accessory dwelling.
“The proposed zoning ordinance amendments would enable the construction of new detached accessory dwellings and reduce barriers to the conversion of existing accessory buildings into accessory dwellings,” staff said in a report. “The proposed amendment balances design flexibility, privacy and separation concerns, and the county’s housing goals.”
The project has attracted some concerns from both sides of the discussion. At the Planning Commission meeting, a local resident, whose accessory dwelling permit was denied last year, said he was excited for the new ordinance, but was frustrated that ADUs were subject to regulations like annual inspections.
Meanwhile, earlier discussions about ADUs exposed concerns from some residents that the new buildings could increase density and crowding in residential neighborhoods and have negative impacts on trees, stormwater management, noise, privacy, traffic and parking. Concerns were also expressed about ADUs being used as short-term rental units offered through services like Airbnb.
Photo via Arlington County
Arlington officials now look set to further loosen rules around the creation of “accessory dwelling units” sometime this spring, changing some zoning standards to allow more property owners to build the homes on their land.
County staff are now circulating a draft policy recommending that local leaders allow property owners to build the homes, commonly known as “mother-in-law suites,” with a five-foot setback from the street and property lines.
The County Board has long sought to see more people build “ADUs” around Arlington, viewing them as low-cost way to beef up the county’s housing options. Officials have become especially interested in the homes as they’ve debated ways to improve access to “missing middle” housing, or homes that offer rent prices somewhere in between new, luxury apartments and subsidized affordable homes.
The Board worked in 2017 to loosen regulations on ADUs and expand their creation in Arlington, but those changes only impacted apartments to be created within a single-family home, like in a garage or attic. The rule tweaks also allowed property owners to convert existing detached buildings on their lots into ADUs, but they did not allow anyone to build new ADUs unattached to other buildings on the property.
This latest proposal would change that. County staff examined the potential for one-foot, five-foot and 10-foot setback requirements, and they settled on the middle option as the best way to balance competing priorities.
“The five-foot setback balances privacy and separation concerns, design flexibility and the county’s housing goals regarding increasing housing options,” staff wrote in documents presented at an open house earlier this week.
Staff estimate that altering the setback requirements in that way would allow the owners of 42 percent of all homes in residential zoning districts to build new ADUs. They expect that a five-foot setback would allow some space between property lines and ADUs, and create enough room for direct sunlight to flow into all buildings on a given property.
Officials declined to side with a one-foot setback requirement, noting that it would allow for considerably less privacy, with buildings right up against property lines. Yet they found that it would only slightly increase the number of properties where ADUs could be built — 44 percent of residential properties would be eligible, staff estimated.
They also found that buildings so close to property lines are subject to more stringent fire safety-related building requirements, whereas buildings five feet away are not, “potentially decreasing the cost of construction for the owner.”
As for the 10-foot setback option, staff found it would substantially decrease the percentage of eligible properties — they calculated about 37 percent would qualify — while also creating the potential for buildings on sites to feel more clustered together, creating “the perception of greater massing on the site.”
It helped, too, that staff found that other, similarly sized localities around the country use the five-foot setback standard.
Staff found that Charlottesville, Seattle, Santa Cruz, California and Los Angeles County all use a similar guideline — only Portland uses the 10-foot standard, while no other localities staff examined use the one-foot setback. D.C., however, allows ADUs to be built right up to the property line, as the city has gone through its own efforts in recent years to expand access to the homes.
Staff plan to convene a series of additional meetings on the setback proposals in the coming weeks, with plans to send them to the Planning Commission for debate by May 6. The County Board could then take action by May 18.
After months of work, Arlington officials are gearing up to advance a new round of regulatory changes designed to encourage the creation of accessory dwelling units around the county.
The county plans to hold an open house on the new regulations tonight (Tuesday), specifically on policies governing how far the homes can be set back from the street.
Commonly known as “ADUs,” or “mother-in-law suites,” the homes can include everything from basement apartments to those located above a house’s garage. The County Board passed a series of revisions to Arlington’s ADU regulations in 2017, in a bid to prompt more people to create those units and beef up the supply of reasonably priced homes in the county.
Those changes were primarily targeted at allowing homeowners to more easily create ADUs within existing structures, rather than building new ones. The rules changes also allowed property owners to create an ADU in an existing structure detached from a single-family home, like a garage, but they could not build any new structures on properties for such a purpose.
Still, the Board vowed to subsequently consider rules changes allowing people to build free-standing ADUs on properties. The homes are broadly seen as a key way to provide “missing middle” housing, or homes that fall in between luxury apartments and subsidized, affordable homes, and advocates have long championed additional ADU rules changes.
But, to allow for any new construction, officials would need to change the “setback” requirements, which stipulate how far the homes can be located from the street. County Manager Mark Schwartz has been developing proposals for such rules changes, but has yet to unveil them in a public setting.
That is set to change later this afternoon. The exact shape of the proposals remains unclear, however — a county spokeswoman could not immediately provide details on the proposed regulations. Michelle Winters, the executive director of the affordable housing advocacy group the Alliance for Housing Solutions, also said she was unsure when the county will release the details of the proposal publicly.
The ADU meeting is set for the Ellen M. Bozman Government Center (2100 Clarendon Blvd) in conference rooms C and D from 4-8 p.m. Any zoning changes discussed there would likely need to be scrutinized by both the Planning Commission and County Board before they go into effect.
The Arlington County Board voted 4-1 at its Tuesday meeting to loosen the rules around homeowners adding “accessory dwelling units” to their properties.
The revisions adopted by the Board would, among other things:
- Put no limit on the size of an ADU located wholly within a basement
- Require that an ADU take up no more than either 35 percent of the combined floor area of the property, or up to a maximum of 750 square feet
- Allow detached ADUs in existing accessory buildings (like a garage) and assess more options for setback requirements for new detached accessory dwellings
- Remove the annual limit on the number of ADUs that can be created in the county
- Require any requirement for the owner to occupy the property, but if the owner does not occupy one of the dwellings, the entire property may be occupied by no more than one family
Only about 20 ADUs — defined as a second place to live on a property, with a kitchen, a bathroom and a separate entrance — have been approved in Arlington since 2009.
A proposal to relax rules in the county’s Zoning Ordinance had been under discussion since earlier this year as the county looks to encourage more ADUs, also known as “granny flats” or “mother-in-law suites.”
“The ordinance we passed in 2008 failed to generate accessory dwellings,” County Board Chair Jay Fisette said in a statement. “We are committed to creating more affordable housing in our County, and to making it easier for Arlingtonians to age in place. An accessory dwelling could create an additional income stream for those on fixed incomes. These revisions will give homeowners more opportunities to create accessory dwellings, while maintaining the character of our single-family neighborhoods.”
Board member John Vihstadt voted against the plan, citing “anxiety” from residents worried about neighborhoods being taken over by ADUs, as well as the worries of some about the impact on trees, stormwater management and other environmental aspects.
During their deliberations, Board members wrestled with how to direct County Manager Mark Schwartz to study requirements for new detached buildings that could be built to house an ADU. Existing structures are allowed to house ADUs right away.
Vihstadt tried to widen the study beyond setback requirements — how far back the ADU should be from the edges of the property — to look at building height and other aspects, but that brought opposition from Fisette.
“It seems to me you’ve opened up a lot more conversation here that will become far more complicated in the days ahead,” Fisette said, urging his colleagues to keep things simple and just study setback requirements.
“Just because a policy is simple to understand doesn’t make it any more sound than if it’s more complicated,” Vihstadt responded. “These are important characteristics that are taken into account in Arlington and elsewhere.”
Board members voted to direct Schwartz to only study setback requirements, and he is expected to provide his findings to the Board in the coming months. Members agreed that needs more work before a final decision can be made.
“Certainly, I think the desire to make sure we are working with homeowners to allow existing buildings to be used for this purpose makes a lot of sense,” Board member Christian Dorsey said. “But moving forward with new buildings, I’m not sure we’ve considered all options available to us to account for the different uses that we are entitling compared to when the Zoning Ordinance was created and as it’s been refined over the years.”
A plan to make it easier for homeowners to add an “accessory dwelling unit” to their property could be set for an Arlington County Board vote as early as next month.
The proposal has been under discussion since earlier this year as the county looks to encourage more ADUs, also known as “granny flats” or “mother-in-law suites.”
Only about 20 ADUs — defined as a second place to live on a property, with a kitchen, a bathroom and a separate entrance — have been approved in Arlington since the ordinance first came into effect in 2009. Local advocates have previously said that relaxing regulations could help ease the county’s lack of affordable housing.
“While accessory dwellings will not alone solve the housing affordability issue, as the Plan notes, it is another tool to provide a typically lower-priced housing alternative,” staff wrote in a report on the proposal.
Staff said they are proposing the following revisions to the ordinance on ADUs, “in order to increase opportunities for residents to add accessory dwellings, while maintaining the residential neighborhood character.”
- Allow for ADUs in detached buildings (like a garage)
- Increase ADUs’ maximum occupancy from two to three
- Increase the maximum square footage from 750 square feet to 1,000 square feet for a basement ADU
- Remove the minimum lot width requirement and area requirements
- Remove the requirement that a resident must live in a home for one year prior to applying for an ADU
- Remove the annual limit of 28 new ADUs in the county
Staff recommended that the following requirements remain largely unchanged:
- Owner occupancy requirement
- Parking requirements
- Compliance requirements
- Design requirements, although some revisions are proposed to allow for additional flexibility
On Saturday, the Board will decide whether advance the plan for public hearings at the Planning Commission on November 6 and a hearing and vote at its November 18 monthly meeting.
(Updated at 10:20 a.m.) Homeowners could find it considerably easier to add an “accessory dwelling unit” to their property under changes set to be made to the ordinance in the fall.
Only 20 ADUs — defined as a second living space with a kitchen, a bathroom and a separate entrance — have been approved in Arlington since the ordinance first came into effect in 2009. Advocates have said they can help ease the county’s lack of affordable housing.
Staff is recommending that the Board allow detached ADUs, set back from the main house, and bump up the maximum occupancy from two to three. Currently in Arlington ADUs are only allowed within a single-family home.
At a work session Tuesday with county staff, Arlington County Board members debated various other recommendations, focusing in on a few.
Board members discussed staff’s recommendation of maintaining the current cap of ADU approvals at 28 a year countywide. Chair Jay Fisette and member Christian Dorsey suggested removing the cap altogether.
“Even at the likely installation rates, we’re not talking about a big impact on our community,” said Dorsey. “And who’s to say that if the 29th application is really the ideal, textbook accessory dwelling location and circumstance, we have to say no because we’re going to cap it? … It just really seems insane.”
But others were not so sure about removing the cap. Board member John Vihstadt suggested looking into capping new ADUs by civic association or neighborhood to prevent a concentration in one place, something others were happy to go along with in lieu of abolishing the cap altogether.
Joel Franklin, a housing planner at the county department of Community, Planning, Housing and Development, added that staff will undertake an annual survey to try and find any issues that may arise.
The Board also explored raising the maximum number of people allowed to live in an ADU. The current maximum is two, with staff recommending that be increased to three, but several wanted more work to be done to explore whether that limit could be raised further.
Vice chair Katie Cristol said consistency is key, and that it becomes difficult when “governing the number of people in a bedroom.” But Vihstadt and Fisette were not so sure, and inclined to stick with the staff recommendation.
“It’s one thing to stay one or two nights in a crowded hotel room when you’re on vacation with the kids or friends or whatever,” Vihstadt said. “It’s another thing to have that crowded condition on a monthly or long-term basis.”
Staff suggested various rules for the units, including that their front doors can be on the same side as long as they do not face, and that exterior stairways must not face the street, among others.
Those rules are designed to protect the character of neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes. County staff members will continue to study the various policies governing aesthetics, they said.
“This is really a significant body of work. This is a use that I think we should be welcoming in our community while being cognizant of impacts on neighborhoods and protecting and planning against them,” said Cristol. “I would hate to lose this opportunity in any house or lot because somebody’s front door is placed in the wrong place.”
A slight change to the parking requirements for properties with ADUs has also been proposed.
Staff will compile the results of the survey on accessory dwellings this month, then finalize its recommendations. The Zoning and Housing Commissions will examine staff’s plans, with the Planning Commission and County Board expected to take final action in November.
The county’s ordinance on accessory dwelling units, also known as “granny flats” or “mother-in-law suites,” is set for some changes after staff and a citizen group put together some initial ideas.
Only 20 ADUs — defined as a second place to live on a property, with a kitchen, a bathroom and a separate entrance — have been approved in Arlington since the ordinance first came into effect in 2009.
In a bid to encourage more accessory dwellings, the county convened a working group, which has come up with several proposals, including:
- ADUs would be allowed in townhomes. (Currently they are only allowed on the inside of a single-family home.)
- ADUs would be allowed to exist as detached dwellings.
- The maximum allowed size would be increased from 750 to 1,000 square feet
- The maximum occupancy would be increased from two people to three to allow for couples with a child or similar circumstances.
- The requirement that accessory dwellings can also only be added after a year of ownership would be removed, meaning home builders could begin to add them in new homes.
In March, local economist Eric Brescia, a member of the County Housing Commission and the Arlington County Republican Committee’s policy director, said there are too many “poison pills” preventing further approvals of accessory dwellings. He argued that relaxing regulations could help ease the county’s lack of affordable housing.
Staff will share these preliminary ideas and more at a community meeting Saturday, from 10 a.m. to noon at Francis Scott Key Elementary School (2300 Key Blvd).
Rules around the units, sometimes called a “mother-in-law suite” — a second home with a kitchen, bathroom and separate entrance on a single-family lot — were approved less than a decade ago after much local debate. But in the interim, few new units have been approved.
Eric Brescia, a member of the County Housing Commission and the Arlington County Republican Committee’s policy director, said there are too many “poison pills” preventing further approvals.
If regulations are relaxed and more units come online, however, affordability could improve, he said. Brescia discussed his views on affordable housing at the monthly meeting of the Arlington GOP on Wednesday night.
He noted that the local GOP was previously opposed to accessory dwellings, but things change over time. The plan to relax rules on accessory dwellings has also received support on the left of the political spectrum.
“I’m of the view that finding places we allow units to be built is a free market solution,” he said.
Brescia added that county staff is “playing around” with a different kind of zoning on Columbia Pike. Under the new zoning, a building would be required to occupy a certain amount of space, but the number of units contained within is not regulated.
That could allow more units to be built, as could the oft-discussed plans to turn vacant offices in Crystal City and other neighborhoods into micro-unit apartments. Brescia said discussions are continuing on that proposal.
And despite the strain on schools, roads and other infrastructure caused by more people moving into Arlington, Brescia said a balance must be struck.
“There most definitely is a trade-off and there is a stress on facilities,” he said. “But then you go to the other extreme in somewhere like San Francisco where they’re not building anything and it’s so expensive to live there.”
Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.
By: Lisa Nisenson
Last week, former State Senator and Arlington County Board member Mary Margaret Whipple kicked off Affordable Housing month with a Progressive Voice column advocating more housing options, such as introducing small multi-family dwellings and accessory dwellings (ADs). In making the case, Senator Whipple cited the benefits of housing variety, while acknowledging concerns about how new housing types fit into existing communities.
Of the expanded housing options, accessory units such as backyard cottages and in-law suites, have the greatest near-term potential to add lower-cost housing options across the County.
In 2008, Arlington updated codes and regulations for accessory units, though homeowners and construction companies still face code barriers that outweigh the benefits of constructing ADs. While safety — such as fire codes — drives many of the requirements, other elements related to parking and design deserve closer scrutiny.
The stated purpose for these elements is largely to lower impacts on surrounding properties, though it is unclear (1) whether the impacts exist to the degree anticipated and (2) whether the required design requirements effectively prevent or reduce impacts. Given the housing pressures on an increasing number of Arlington residents, our entire community needs to come together on a platform of “what works” rather than expansive code written to anticipate and regulate every “what if.”
Fortunately, other cities have adopted — and fine-tuned — programs that offer ideas for shaping policies, programs and design elements for neighborhood-friendly accessory units. Here is a snapshot of how programs are shaping up:
Portland, Oregon: In general, Portland has the most ambitious AD program with lower parking requirements and permit fee reductions. While most cities with ADs require owner occupancy either in the main or accessory unit, Portland eliminated this rule in 1998. Three years ago, the state surveyed homeowners to determine (1) how ADs are used and (2) information on concerns such as parking.
The results? By and large, ADs are rented for out for extra income, typically to a single occupant. For parking, one-third of units report using the street (for the other units, 20% of dwellers do not own a car or homeowners provide off-street parking). Portland also places a high value on design and quality.
Seattle, Washington: Seattle has taken a more incremental and targeted approach to rolling out its AD program. Like Arlington, Seattle manages parking (though based on proximity to transit instead of on-street parking capacity), minimum lot sizes and design standards. Also like Arlington, Seattle’s housing crisis is driving a renewed effort for promoting accessory units through regulatory reform and incentives.
Novato, California: Novato created a new class of units: Junior Accessory Dwelling Units. These units are modified interiors within existing homes to create a separate living space. The city waives requirements for parking and fire codes while making special provisions for building small-scale kitchen facilities.
As it responds to escalating housing costs, Arlington should consider other trends affecting housing. New mobility options, notably bike share, car share such as Car2Go and on-demand ride hailing — such as Uber — are helping drive down car ownership rates and the related need for parking.
Also, an increasing number of retiring baby boomers are finding decreasing options for “aging in place” and “aging in neighborhood.” Yet there are few downsizing options other than apartments, and restrictive rules prevent the use of space in existing homes to provide a downsizing option while giving homeowners income to cover taxes and maintenance.
A big wild card is the availability of short term rentals — like Airbnb — that were barely on the radar in 2008, but are now reshaping parts of the real estate and hospitality industry. Here in Arlington, our County Board is considering the legal and tax framework for short term rentals. The Virginia General Assembly is also expected to revisit statewide legislation that could restrict local governments’ ability to regulate short-term rentals.
Currently, Arlington’s code makes building guest houses for temporary guests easier than building accessory units for long-term, stable renters. Without new rules, the County may be in a position where economic incentives favor “Airbnb cottages” over new, stable housing units.
As Arlington implements the Affordable Housing Master Plan and rules for accessory dwellings, look for discussions on allowing detached dwelling units (as opposed to attached or in-house units currently allowed), fire code requirements, site requirements such as lot coverage and enforcement.
If you are new to the topic of ADs, the website Accesorydwellings.org is an exhaustive resource, with links to a design gallery, research, policies and case studies.
Lisa Nisenson is Founder of the urban planning startup GreaterPlaces, named a “Top 10” resource by the planning authority Planetizen. She holds positions on the American Planning Association’s Sustainable Communities Division and Smart City Task Force. She is a long time Arlington civic advocate from Lyon Park.
Image: Raleigh, N.C.
Address: 1801 N. Bryan Street
Neighborhood: Lyon Village
Open: Saturday, April 21 from 12-4 p.m. and Sunday, April 22 from 1-4 p.m.
Stop by Saturday, April 21 from 12-2 p.m. to chat with Dave Springberg of Spring Street Development, and to preview this exceptional home in Lyon Village.
With four finished levels, the home offers space for everyone and everything, including an Accessory Dwelling Unit in the sun-filled lower level.
Desirable details include wainscoting, wood floors on two levels, coffered ceiling and fireplace in the family room. Upstairs there are three bedrooms and three baths and the top floor retreat has a fourth bedroom, bathroom and versatile space for an office, gym or playroom.
Gorgeous kitchen featuring crisp white cabinetry, blue island and quartz countertops. The home provides several dining options — either casual or traditional — along with a butler’s pantry and mudroom entry from the garage.
Walk to Clarendon for Metro, restaurants, shops, parks and bikepath.
Key/Science Focus, Swanson and Washington-Lee Schools.