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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Vancouver City Council updates accessory dwelling units rules

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: August 8, 2017, 10:25pm

Vancouver city councilors were split over whether an ordinance updating accessory dwelling units standards should become law as is, but at the end of Monday’s council meeting it narrowly passed 4-3.

The ordinance makes several changes to the way Vancouver regulates ADUs, secondary residential units built within or next to single-family homes. The more controversial changes that passed eliminate on-site, off-street parking requirements and owner-occupancy requirements, which means both the main house and ADU can be rentals.

Encouraging ADU development by relaxing restrictions was a recommendation of the Affordable Housing Task Force that met between May and December 2015. Mayor Tim Leavitt, along with Councilors Alishia Topper and Anne McEnerny-Ogle, sat on the task force. Rules and regulations around accessory dwelling units haven’t changed substantially since 2004, and only about 65 have been legally built since 2000. Prior to Monday’s meeting the updates had been discussed at an open house and city council and planning commission workshops.

Before Monday evening’s vote, people spoke for and against the changes.

Stephanie Turlay, Councilor Bill Turlay’s wife, said she finds it difficult to understand the “pack ’em and stack ’em attitude” considering existing congestion in Vancouver. She’s worried about property values going down as ADUs are built.

“I do not see that the city has any business changing the integrity of neighborhoods as they now stand,” she said, adding that the old ADU requirements worked fine. “To me this whole thing is really basically unenforceable.”

Chris Dickinsen, who lives in the Carter Park neighborhood, said she’s not against building ADUs but that she is concerned about the potential problems from removing the parking and owner-occupancy requirements.

“If you’re going to subject your neighbor to an ADU you need to live in that neighborhood,” Dickinsen said.

Likewise, the Planning Commission was concerned about a rapid influx of ADUs and wanted to retain the owner-occupancy and parking requirements. In an email to the city council, the Clark County Association of Realtors said on-site parking should be maintained and that owner-occupancy requirements should apply to certain zones. Other emails to the city council supported the changes and wanted restrictions loosened further than what was proposed.

Bryan Snodgrass, the city’s principal planner, said that building requirements incentivize people to live on site; owners otherwise have to provide more extensive fire separation. The rationale in favor of removing the owner-occupancy requirement is that it’s difficult to enforce, isn’t required of other housing types and has no observed relationship to code compliance problems locally.

Snodgrass said a survey done in Portland showed about two-thirds of ADUs there are owner-occupied. Still, those households want options.

“Even if they didn’t necessarily have the intent of moving out, they wanted to have that flexibility in the future,” he said.

The owner-occupancy requirements were the biggest concern for Councilor Jack Burkman, who thinks the changes skirt land-use laws. He said zoning should be changed instead.

“What we are doing is we are coming in a backdoor into our land-use planning processes and saying ‘these single-family neighborhoods, we’re going to convert them to multiple family,’ ” Burkman said. “I don’t believed that this ordinance right now is going to do what we want it to do with minimal collateral damage. I think we’re taking a significant risk of impacting our single-family neighborhoods, and we’re not going to be able to unring that bell when we do that.”

He noted that residents will not be notified if an ADU is going to be built near them.

Councilor Ty Stober argued that there aren’t any single-family zones where ADUs are not allowed, so the updated standards don’t make backdoor zoning changes.

Councilor Bart Hansen said that property owners have a right to earn income from their properties. He remembers when he was a college student at Washington State University living in a house owned by an older woman who used the extra income to help her age in place. However, he also said that the updates are not perfect.

“Is this going to come with everything I want it to come with? No, it’s not,” Hansen said. “There are some issues that I’m looking at and I’m not overly pleased with. But, at the same time I’m taking it for the whole and I think the whole is going to be a very positive thing for Vancouver.”

Bill Turlay, who lives on a cul-de-sac in east Vancouver, said he wouldn’t want to live next to an ADU and reflected on how an ADU would impact street appeal and parking.

“I just want to protect my piece of property down there,” he said.

Topper said she researched other cities with liberal ADU policies, including Portland. Portland has as many as 116,644 buildable lots that could accommodate ADUs, but there are only about 1,900 ADUs citywide, she said, citing an article from Willamette Week and a blog by Portland-based ADU expert Kol Peterson. Vancouver, by comparison, has about 37,000 single-family residential homes, Topper said, so if Vancouver had the same amount of success as Portland with constructing ADUs that would equate to about 600 units. From all the research she’s done, she said she does not see how the loosened laws will have a “disproportionately huge burden” on people.

“If we’re going to say that you have to own the home in order to have someone live in your basement, to me that sounds like renter discrimination,” Topper said. “You’re saying that people who are renting homes are going to be different than the people who own that home.”

Topper said the ordinance should be evaluated several months down the road. She then moved to approve the ordinance, which prompted more discussion before it passed.

Councilor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who has an ADU at her home in the Shumway neighborhood, said she was bothered by the parking concerns. She said she already struggles to find parking near her home, which abuts a commercial zone. There are several basements that were illegally converted into ADUs in her neighborhood, she said.

“I’m on a corner lot and I don’t have a space in front of my house or on the side of my house Monday through Friday,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “The owner occupied piece doesn’t bother me too much. I think it’s the parking piece that is bothering me and I am struggling with that.”

Stober said his husband gets mad when visitors park in front of their house in the Hough neighborhood, but he reminds him that the public street doesn’t belong to them. Growing up on a one-acre property, Stober said he recognizes the benefits to living in an area with that kind of room.

“Those are things that I gave up when I decided that I wanted to live in an urban space,” Stober said.

Leavitt said he doesn’t believe the changes will cause a mass drop in property values or a mad rush to build ADUs. He noted that the city will be evaluating parking to determine how to make it better for residents, workers and visitors in the downtown and uptown areas. Vancouver has more of a walking problem, than a parking problem, he said.

Ultimately, Leavitt, Stober, Topper and Hansen voted in favor of the changes. Burkman, McEnerny-Ogle and Turlay voted against them.

The city council will further discuss ADUs as the new standards are rolled out. There will also be an outreach campaign to let people know about the newly-passed changes.

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