ADUs: Reframing the discussion

After what seemed like unanimity and a strong sense of purpose at the Planning Commission, the Council discussion about Accessory Dwelling Units has been dispiriting to watch thus far and the public comments even more so. Since the Council will have another go at ADUs today, Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at their worksession, I’d like to try and reframe issue – or at least the structure of the discussion – rather than repeat the same pattern.

At previous meetings, three Council members consistently talked about the policies supporting the ordinance to encourage more ADUs as one way to expand the housing supply and benefit the Northfield community as a whole.

Three Council members and Mayor just as consistently flag individual provisions in the ordinance as problematic and look to regulate ADUs more stringently to “protect the character of the neighborhood.”

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate

I wouldn’t call these groups adversarial, but they are talking past each other and relying on different kinds of evidence.

Moving ahead

Northfield’s Strategic Plan looks to build A Community Where Everyone Can Afford to Live, Welcomes Everyone, and is Resilient and Sustainable

Each of these values statements, I’ll argue, requires Northfield to change how it does business, sometimes in painful ways because Northfield, like most places, has developed in a way which is exclusive, expensive, and unsustainable.

Exclusive: Building hundreds of acres of larger single-family homes has segregated the city by income and excluded lower income residents from large parts of the city. Cheaper housing and multifamily housing have been largely pushed to the very edges in the least connected places. Our families of color are farther from school, large parks, and shopping. Senior housing is removed from our other neighborhoods.

Race dot map: Yes, Northfield is segregated

Expensive: Requiring minimum lot sizes and large setbacks (revised somewhat in the most recent Land Development Code) and wide streets, as well as allowing developers to determine street layouts has dispersed and disconnected the city. As you well know, Northfield is working to assemble funding for the 246/Jefferson Parkway intersection reconstruction right now – an intersection which must accommodate much local traffic because other routes were truncated. Focusing on highway commercial development means more driving and more road miles to repair. As Urban3 demonstrated last year, this pattern generates less tax revenue.

Unsustainable: As Northfield drafts its climate action plan, we must think about the development pattern in climate terms, too, and how this pattern has required more driving, created more stormwater runoff, using more land, made providing transit service more difficult.

Northfield’s recent development pattern

ADUs will not solve these problems for there is no single or easy solution for changing a decades long growth pattern. But allowing ADUs is a very small step toward changing our habits and, perhaps more importantly, gives Northfield a great opening to talk about what matters.

Looking back

In January 2018, the Planning Commission discussed Tiny Houses (here was my take), but City staff noted “The current feeling is that instead of introducing Tiny Houses into the mix, Northfield might be better served by modifying the existing ADU standards.”

So we did. Planning Commission members researched the policies and regulations which had been found to result in more ADUs being built in other cities and which regulations proved to be obstacles to development to avoid the problem hat “ADUs are legal but restricted to within an inch of their lives.” These are the big ones:

  • Off-street parking requirements
  • Requiring the property owner to occupy either the ADU or the primary dwelling
  • Size and lot coverage
  • Design or compatibility requirements

Why these are important

I’m can’t speak for all Planning Commission members, but I believed our charge was make ADUs easier to build because encouraging this housing type inches forward the Strategic Priorities for equity, housing, and climate action. The changes the Planning Commission recommended unanimously are intended to nudge the status quo in a different direction:

Parking: Removing the minimum parking requirement is part of questioning how much of Northfield’s valuable and limited land must be dedicated to cars (as Urban3 showed us recently) and removing parking minimums has not had adverse effects in other places. As well, other recent research shows a causal relation between zoning code parking requirements and increased in driving.

Parking should be added when there is a demonstrated need for it, but not required (for there are older non-drivers, people with disabilities, and those who choose not to drive). Plus, required parking adds to the cost of building the ADU and locating that space (plus access to it) makes it much harder to build ADUs on smaller lots.

Parking takes up a lot of space

Size: Current regulations allow an ADU up to 864 sf and 24’ high as a second story on a detached garage which ensured a one level (on the second floor) limited to the footprint of the car storage.  The Planning Commission wanted to ensure small homes were not unduly penalized by requirements to limit ADUs to a size calculated as a small percentage of the primary dwelling, but some confusion resulted and can easily be fixed.

Lot coverage: The zoning code limits buildings to 30% of the lot. That means almost 2/3 of the property must remain unbuilt, a requirement which impacts smaller lots especially harshly. The rationale for this provision in the LDC was to prevent “monster homes” or the sort of tear-down problem some desirable Minneapolis neighborhoods face where smaller older homes are demolished to build much larger homes; this has not been an issue in Northfield.

The lot coverage requirement impacts more than ADUs, too. Building single level homes on smaller lots proves impossible; the Zoning Board of Appeals recently granted a variance to the lot coverage limit to allow new one-level construction in one of our newer subdivisions.

Neighborhood compatibility: The stated purpose of these standards in our code is “to protect the character of existing residential neighborhoods.” Maybe this looks like a harmless way to avoid really horrible design, but it is not. Rather, it is a strategy which looks to continue the ways zoning has been used to privilege some groups and some people. More bluntly, Trying to preserve the character of a neighborhood (even if it could be determined what the character is) is an attempt to prevent change and, perhaps, keep out people not like ourselves. Removing compatibility requirements was intended as a very small step toward considering the systemic bias in how we build.

More practically, asking for city staff to assess compatibility and character is hopelessly subjective and more objective requirements such as having the ADU match the materials or features of the primary dwelling means adding to costs by requiring more customization, perhaps more expensive materials, and preventing use of some modular products.

from Neighbors for More Neighbors an advocacy group working for abundant homes in Minneapolis. Talk to your friends about zoning!

Back to right now

Seeing the forest beyond the backyard trees

For the Council members focused on small regulations, consider I ask you to take a step back and ask some difficult questions implicit in the proposed ADU ordinance.

Strategic Priorities: Northfield has a real need for more housing, greater equity, and more sustainable development as you wisely identified based on real data. Please talk to your colleagues about the Planning Commission’s choices and their importance in taking a small step in a better direction.

Public input is not a referendum: You have been deluged with calls and emails about this issue, but public comments are not the same as votes on an issue. Many negative comments have two characteristics. First, they focus on some small negative impact for which they have no evidence that is will actually occur (and research from other areas indicates these problems will not occur). Second, the comments are made by the people who are already empowered and have access to housing and to government. Some of their fears are incredible (tar paper shacks and lean-tos) and others (parking and rental concerns) are related to enforcement of other ordinances.

Bottom line: ADUs are a very small step which will be built only as they are needed and wanted by property owners. Other cities have learned that problems (like parking) did not materialize and other smaller concerns can be dealt with in far less restrictive ways. Don’t make this “welcome” mat welcome in Northfield:

Looking at some trees in the forest

For the big picture people, the task is different. My experience on the Planning Commission and Council is that good policy is relatively easy to adopt, but also easy to ignore at the point of a project or other decision when people are telling you how much this ordinance will affect them right now. But the big picture is important – don’t give up on the big picture, but consider a few small fixes.

A really great tree

Strategic priorities: You already know about the real need for more housing, greater equity, and climate action. Keep helping your colleagues understand Northfield’s particular problems and why the Planning Commission’s choices make sense for helping Northfield become an even better place. Please call out how data-driven policy should not be undermined by individual fears.

Public input is not a referendum: See above. For me, the most disheartening feature of the Council discussion has been the disproportionate weight given to people like me – white, affluent, homeowners for whom government (and everything else) works very very well. It takes some serious rethinking to understand how much privilege is embedded in the zoning code and my hope is that the ADU conversation will start the difficult discussion about how we build a really more inclusive neighborhood character.

Bottom line: ADUs are a small step, but a big opening for talking about privilege, housing, and sustainability. After meaty discussion about the “why,” here are some ideas for small changes to address concerns:

  • Parking: consider how ON-street parking could help ADUs (and many homeowners and renters) by issuing neighborhood permits and changing winter parking rules for local streets. Alternatively, require one parking space, but make it easy to waive that requirement for an ADU where it is not needed.
  • Lot coverage: Adopt a larger percentage which will not preclude ADUs on smaller lots.
  • ADU size: Adopt a provision which is clear as to footprint or living space. For whatever number or percentage of the primary dwelling may be selected, make sure it does not inadvertently limit ADUs to only the largest lots. For height, consider specifying height for attached vs. detached units.
  • Enforcement: parking and the possibility of poor tenant behavior are not part of this ordinance. Look to nuisance, noise, and blight laws and how they can be enforced to address any problems which actually occur.
  • Rental code: The ADU ordinance cannot change the rental code, so more action is needed but, as with neighborhood character, this needs more discussion.

TL; DR

The Council needs to

  • talk together about how ADUs can advance their Strategic Policies for housing, equity, and climate action;
  • Have the painful conversation about neighborhood character and who is speaking about it and,
  • Then talk about what regulations are needed looking to other cities and real research, not just public opinion.

Back in the (Planning Commission) saddle again

Back in the saddle again

I started blogging (at the suggestion/arm-twisting of civic blogmeister Griff Wigley) when I ran for mayor in 2004. I was the chair of the Planning Commission at the time and while I lost the election, I kept writing until I left the Commission in 2005. Blogging resumed and reached its peak during my 2009-2012 City Council term, but has languished since then with only intermittent burps of blogging. Now, I’ve returned to the Planning Commission, so let’s see if I can return to this too (despite some pronouncing the death of blogging).

For me, blogging was a chance to analyze and clarify issues for myself by writing about them and then (I hoped) provide a more nuanced, critical review of issues than presented in local “real” media (along with some bits of fun and other random stories). Over time, a couple of basic, guiding questions became clearer in my mind. I’m asking: 

Who pays, who benefits? I was miffed, when Northfield was developing lots of single family housing and major public facilities (hospital, Middle School), why the cost to taxpayers over the long term was ignored, but the the cost to developers in the short term was the only cost considered. My concern was that the City was failing to recognize that government (at all levels) is a player in the market (by regulating what can be built, incentivizing/subsidizing certain types of projects, by its tax structure) and as a party to individual development deals like subdivisions, planned unit developments, etc. Why, as Northfield tried to develop policy and regulations which don’t unfairly burden business (in the short term), didn’t it also consider its own (that is, taxpayers’) interests in the long term for how places are connected, the amount of infrastructure to build and more. Add, more recently, I’ve been thinking about how our regulations privilege the folks who are already more privileged.

Why aren’t land use and transportation considered together?  My very first Planning Commission meeting had the final plat for the hospital on the agenda. The hospital location was chosen because land was cheap (long term almost free lease from St. Olaf) and higher reimbursement rates in (metro) Dakota County. How people would get to the hospital was decided only afterward. For the Middle School, traffic considerations were brushed aside in favor of the beautiful building with lots of playing fields but which has proven unsafe and unpleasant to bike or walk to (and it will take millions to retrofit the 246/Jefferson Parkway intersection). Developers of residential subdivisions chose where street connections and parks would be located, but shouldn’t that be driven by public needs since they would be public facilities? Each decision isolated from the “how do you get there?” question spills over into how we can live our daily lives.

Optimism: These questions were considered pretty nutty in 2001. Since then, the number of cities, organizations, and planners taking these questions seriously and building more connected, more equitable, more sustainable (fiscally and environmentally) places has been growing quickly. Northfield has begun to gather momentum, too, and I look forward to 2018 and beyond.