Salt Lake City Council prepares final push on new rules for ADUs

The Salt Lake City Council is gearing up to make final decisions on an overhaul of the city’s rules around accessory dwelling units, the small and separate living units built within homes, above garages or in backyards.

Among the updates are design changes that will generally make it easier to build an ADU and on more properties in the city. New ADUs could be bigger, taller and closer to property lines.

There are four key policy questions that will likely drive council and public debate at a meeting on Tuesday. Decisions made at that meeting will ultimately determine whether Salt Lake City views ADUs as a source of housing it wants to allow on a wide scale, or if we’re still in an era where even the gentlest form of density is still too much for policymakers to bear.

Council members will hear from the public for the first time since October, when a small group spoke out against liberalization of the ordinance at the Planning Commission. There are signs that opponents to affordable housing are mobilizing for this round of feedback, as well.

The Council will discuss wonky things like property line setbacks. But it appears likely that the following issues will get the most attention.

  • Whether the city should allow bigger detached ADUs, up to 1,000 square feet.
  • Whether the city should relax off-street parking requirements for ADUs in some instances.
  • Whether owners of a property with an ADU on it are required to live in either the primary home or the ADU.
  • Whether property owners can build an ADU without first asking permission from the Planning Commission.

What has this done to the neighborhood character?

Bigger size

The current ordinance caps ADUs at no more than 50 percent of the square footage of the primary home on the property.

The proposal as written would allow ADUs to be up to 720 square feet regardless of the size of the home.

Builders generally believe they can create comfortable two-bedroom units within that 720-square-foot maximum. But key to the discussion will be whether there’s a driving reason for the council to cap the size of ADUs if a property owner has the space and money to build a larger one.

Zoning districts already dictate how much land property owners can cover with buildings like their primary house, garages and ADUs. Because zoning districts already have that natural cap, the Planning Commission suggested allowing ADUs up to 1,000 square feet.

Planning staffers suggested allowing property owners in districts with bigger lots to create ADUs that are up to 1,200 square feet. The Council will have to decide whether it wants to allow only homeowners in the wealthiest parts of town to build family-sized ADUs while capping the typically less wealthy zones with smaller lots to have only smaller ADUs.

Where would everyone park in this R-1-5000 neighborhood if homeowners with ADUs didn’t reserve 180 square feet of space in the backyard for an ADU?

Parking drives everything

It’s always about parking.

More specifically, the City Council must decide whether some residents’ fear that they won’t be able to park on the stretch of public street immediately in front of their house will dictate this housing policy.

Homeowners typically must provide an off-street parking space if they’re building an ADU. That space doesn’t count toward the maximum buildable area, but it is land that will be indefinitely turned into 160 square feet of concrete or asphalt some homeowners otherwise might not want on their property.

The proposed update includes sweeping exceptions to the off-street parking requirement.

  • The ADU is built within a half-mile of a bike lane or path;
  • The ADU is within a quarter-mile of a transit stop;
  • The public street in front of the house building an ADU has an uninterrupted curb that could fit a car;
  • Or the zone the ADU is built in doesn’t require off-street parking.

It’s hard to imagine where this change wouldn’t apply, as Salt Lake City is generally fairly bikeable and is expanding its network of bike lanes and trails.

This would be one more design change making it easier to build an ADU while potentially reserving more impervious green space shared between the residents in the primary home and those in the ADU.

To keep or ditch owner-occupancy

Whoever builds an ADU today either has to live in the primary residence or the ADU. 

It’s a requirement that some say promotes accountability on behalf of the property owner who lives in close proximity to a renter they might not have a close personal relationship with. The renter, too, owes it to the landlord to be a good steward of the property and neighborhood. Or so the theory goes.

Removing the owner-occupancy requirement would effectively legalize duplexes citywide.

It would likely open the door to more activity by independent real estate investors who would then have the prospect of two income generating homes on one property, with the overarching result being more rental housing in all neighborhoods.

It would also remove the possibility of renters in ADUs being displaced if the property owner decides to sell and the buyer has other plans.

California, which has been passing multiple pieces of sweeping housing legislation to crawl out of its severe affordability crisis, removed the owner-occupancy requirement statewide. (It even allows two ADUs plus a primary structure on each lot in some cases.)

Along with other changes to its statewide ADU ordinance, California has seen a rapid increase in the number of ADUs constructed in recent years.

No more conditional use 

Some on the Council were around when the city passed its current ADU ordinance in 2018. As part of that debate, they told anxious constituents that the conditional use requirement would provide a source of public feedback. 

Four years later, they’re considering doing away with that requirement, and there are a few important reasons they might do so.

The Legislature passed a law legalizing internal ADUs by-right, that is cities can’t prevent homeowners from adding an in-law apartment inside their homes. That change didn’t apply to detached or external ADUs.

To build a detached ADU in Salt Lake City today, owners work with Planning staff on plans to make sure they meet the code. They then need to make a trip to the Planning Commission for permission for the conditional use.

The Planning Commission has never denied a property owner’s request to build an ADU, but the requests eat up valuable time from employees in the Planning Division.

Planning Director Nick Norris has said processing ADU applications takes up the equivalent of nearly two full-time employees each year.

Opponents to the change say the conditional use process allows for public discourse and could lead to better ADU designs after the community shares its insights. Council will have to decide whether the design standards in the proposal are strong enough to effectively greenlight any ADU request that meets the code.

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.