Big ADU reform proposed by SLC planning department, liberalizing where backyard apartments can go – and not just in residential zones

A new proposal for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) was released this week at city hall, a story we are following as a part of a cluster of massively important land use ordinances under review.

They include affordable housing incentives city-wide, an infill ordinance aimed at stimulating missing-middle housing, height-limit increases Downtown, and making backyard apartments legal in a host of new zoning categories.

ADUs are currently limited to single-family zones, require off-street parking in most cases, and conditional use approval by the Planning Commission. 

Those rules are proposed to change in a big way.

The Administration of Mayor Erin Mendenhall is floating the idea to make ADUs a permitted use on any property that contains a residential dwelling, including multi-family buildings.

ADUs would also be allowed on properties with a non-residential building as long as the underlying zone allows residential uses.

That also means that your hair stylist or car mechanic might be able to build a tiny house to live in behind their business. 

Imagine empty parking lots behind strip malls in CC Commercial Corridor zoning being converted to tiny house backyards.

What’s not proposed to change: the owner-occupancy requirement, a stipulation important to policy makers in the past seemingly intended to avoid a wave of commercial exploitation and the potential negative effects on popular neighborhoods.

Yet when asked by Building Salt Lake, the city’s Planning Director, Nick Norris, told us the Administration is open to discussion about removing that stipulation.

What is proposed?

The city has completely re-written the purpose statement of its ADU ordinance. The differences are notable. Gone is “1. Create new housing units while respecting the appearance and scale of single-family residential development” and in its place is: “1. Promote an increase in the housing stock within the city and promote housing choices by allowing and regulating accessory dwelling units.”

Here are some elements of the proposal highlighted by the Administration:

•ADUs allowed on all properties where a residential dwelling exists.

•ADUs allowed on all properties where there is a non-residential building and where the zoning allows residential uses (currently all commercial zones as interpreted by BSL).

•Setback requirements lowered from 10 ft to 5 ft for units built over garages.

•Off-street parking requirements virtually eliminated. Qualifying conditions include ¼ mile from a transit route, ½ mile from a bike lane or path, and being located on a property that has at least 20 ft of parking frontage.

•Alley orientation requirements: if an ADU is close to an alley it will have to activate its alley frontage with entrances.

•Limits on the size of the ADU to 720 square feet, eliminating percentage calculations with lot and primary dwelling size. Exceptions are proposed for large lots. 

•Removal of height limits that keep ADUs lower than primary structures. “Instead, ADUs would follow similar height requirements as other accessory buildings like garages.”

•Prohibition of short-term rentals on properties with an ADU.

•And the owner occupancy requirement? 

We asked the city Planning Director Nick Norris what was the Administration’s rationale for keeping the owner-occupancy restriction.

Instead of answering the question, which we expected to be a statement about the unintended consequences of allowing non-resident investors to profit from ADUs, Norris deflected.

He seems to be open to removing the own-occupant requirement.

“ADUs on properties with single-family dwellings currently require the owner to live on the property,” Norris told us. “This could mean an ADU renter might be forced to move if the owner of the property is no longer living on site. This proposal may include removing the owner occupancy requirement.”

What’s the process?

The new ADU proposals are being hoisted up the flag pole for the first time. Planners say that presently thru summer they “will solicit community input and make a draft of the proposed code updates.”

That revised proposal is intended to surface at the Planning Commission in fall 2022, thereafter to be transmitted to the City Council.

The council has repeatedly stated its intention to schedule this cluster of housing ordinances together for consideration – Housing Loss Mitigation, RMF infill, affordable housing incentives, and ADUs.

That line-up looks to get marching after budget season and the council’s summer slowdown – can you feel autumn already? Stay tuned right here.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article asserted that businesses needed to be owner-occupied to build an ADU. That is not in the proposal, and has been corrected.

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.