WRAL City support split on backyard cottage plan

News & Observer - Raleigh council nixes backyard cottages from city's growth plan

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The Raleigh City Council’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) Committee met on February 11 to discuss design standards for backyard cottages that would be included in the UDO. The goal of this meeting was to finalize the adoption of backyard cottages in the UDO.

You can watch the meeting on the City of Raleigh’s streaming site for RTN11 (Raleigh Television Network). Follow these steps:

Ultimately, the Council decided that backyard cottages would not be included in the UDO. There were concerns about the modifications to the regulations since they were originally introduced in the draft UDO.

The rear setbacks had grown from 5 or 10 feet, to 30 feet. This was of major concern for Mitchell Silver (Chief Planning & Development Officer and Planning Director ). With this setback, backyard cottages would either have to be placed in the center of the properties, or would eliminate the opportunity for most residents.

There were questions about how the opt-in “neighborhood” scenario would work, which neighborhood, and what would constitute a neighborhood. The Council thought that having a neighborhood pilot may not even be effective. The motto of the UDO was questioned again: Are these the “the right rules in the right places”?

Generally, the Council thought that there were too many questions and concerns with the currently proposed regulations to include backyard cottages in the UDO at this time.

Russ Stephenson will attend the Mordecai CAC tomorrow to gage the neighborhood’s interest in acting as a pilot. Even so, the Council has voted against included BYCs at this time.

The Comprehensive Planning Committee (CPC) met on January 23rd to finalize the public discussion of including Backyard Cottages (BYCs) in Raleigh’s new Unified Development Ordinance (UDO). This was the last time citizens could join the public discussion. The goal of the meeting was for the CPC to come to a consensus for its proposal to the City Council.

You can watch the meeting on the City of Raleigh’s streaming site for RTN11 (Raleigh Television Network). Follow these steps:

Russ Stephenson proposed additional development standards, clarified other regulations, and introduced a document submittal requirement. Rear and side setbacks were increased due to privacy and fire safety. This also includes an additional increase to side setbacks depending on the height of the BYC. The former regulation of a max of 4 unrelated people per property was further defined to say only 2 people (related or not) in the BYC. There was some additional discussion of adult vs. child and resident vs. long-term guests. Other regulations were introduced for quality assurance and privacy – the BYC should be made of similar materials and roof form as the primary residence, and windows should be offset or screened from neighboring residences. The document submittal requirement would include site plan, plan, and primary elevation with additional notes and information.

The CPC agreed to propose the development standards in its complete and revised form, which would include modifications made by Russ Stephenson.

The second part of the CPC proposal to City Council refers to how BYCs will be implemented in Raleigh. The CPC agreed to an “opt-in/neighborhood pilot” where Council will create a overlay boundary where BYCs would be allowed, following the development standards. The neighborhood/boundary would be selected with extensive neighborhood engagement. It is considered a “pilot,” because Council could later modify the boundary to include more neighborhoods, or make it citywide.

The CPC will present its proposal to City Council on February 5th. The Council will vote on adopting the revisions.

See the CPC draft proposal in its current state with Russ Stephenson’s comments here:

CPC 112112 Backyard Cottages+RS3

Dean Rains is an architect in downtown Raleigh. He shares an interesting perspective on accessory dwellings, having experienced their benefits first-hand in the communities he lived in prior to moving to the Triangle. Read his thoughts below, and see pictures of accessory dwellings he and his colleagues have worked on in Indianapolis. 

Indianapolis Accessory Dwelling Unit

I’m a Midwestern native and am very familiar with seeing accessory dwellings on many older neighborhood blocks, as well as newly revitalized blocks.  I believe they’re beneficial for many reasons dealing with function, safety, and aesthetics. I strongly believe they’re a great option for communities, and they also offer the opportunity incorporate some pretty cool design into the spaces.

For many years, I lived in various historic neighborhoods in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, where alleys were quite common.  This foundation of block layout is almost essential in creating accessory dwelling units.  Of course, residential alleys can be hard to maintain, and pressing the city services to maintain them as public streets can certainly be an uphill battle. 

That said, my experience has been very positive with detached or accessory units.  Many of my friends lived in “carriage” houses behind the main structure.  These are often owned by the family, who resides in the main house, and allow support for younger or older members of the family by allowing them independence without being too far away.  Many college-aged adults rent these units and kept them for years.  As they are part of a home lot, the owners and renters tend to keep the maintenance and appearance to a higher quality than some other types of rental units. 

Carriage houses can also provide safety. Many people opt to live in the carriage houses as it offers another layer of security with more people living on one lot, looking out for each other. 

Additionally, a higher density is achieved, and impromptu meetings with owners and neighbors help create a sense of community. 

Back to the alleys – We used our alley frequently, and this is where we would often greet our neighbors who lived behind us.  Waste bins and vehicle access was pushed to the alleys which helped with security and street aesthetics, as well as diverting some traffic.  This also allowed the front door of the lot to be a true front door with a porch, without a 3-car garage and wide driveway.  This, too, further creates sense of community and charm in the neighborhood through a lot arrangement that allows for a more close-knit, secure and livable community.

Aesthetically, the arrangement of a large home along with a smaller accessory unit can open up great opportunities for courtyards, gardens and open spaces between them.  It also helps create positive massing.  Many older communities have started to re-build with this concept as a model using modern or traditional design approaches with great success.  This draws people into the neighborhood and is a catalyst for new development as residents see the positive impact it has on a community.

North Alabama Street Indianapolis Accessory Dwelling Unit 01 North New Jersey Street Indianapolis Accessory Dwelling Unit 01 North New Jersey Street Indianapolis Accessory Dwelling Unit 02

Hilary Stokes is a Raleigh realtor, and is an active downtown resident involved with the Downtown Living Advocates and Triangle Wiki. She supports backyard cottages as a progressive housing type, and as a way to make her living situation more flexible, for herself and family members.

I love the idea of a backyard cottage.  I want to build one here.  I expect that one day my parents may need my care and they can live in my house and I’d live in the cottage.  I think we need more creative housing types.  I understand that people are concerned about students and slumlords, but certainly other cities have figured that out by now.  

It was brought to my attention that there has been considerable push back on backyard cottages and cottage courts in the UDO. I wanted to share my thoughts based on my interaction with home buyers in this area.
1) At a higher level, Raleigh is being positioned as an innovative hub.  I think this campaign has been successful so far, but I don’t really see our housing options as being very innovative.  The most unique thing I have seen is the proposed apartment building near campus that will not have any parking.  Entrepreneurs and other people are being sold on Raleigh, but are we delivering what they want from a housing perspective?  There is a vision for Raleigh and the UDO needs to align with that vision.
2)  Cottage Courts – People are living differently.  Buyers pay attention to how they live and want walkability.  The house itself is no longer the only consideration.  Neighborhood is crucial.  Not everyone wants a big house and a big yard.  What matters is how the home and the community live.  Young buyers don’t mind living 5 feet away from someone else.  I envision the cottage courts being for someone who doesn’t want a lot of maintenance but doesn’t want a shared wall of a condo or town home.  Cottage courts would be great for seniors looking for an intimate community with one level living.  I see such opportunity for the cottage courts as positive infill projects similar to Rosengarten Park.  Tight, dense, but super cute houses in a walkable area.  People thrive off the energy of a neighborhood where lots of people are out and active.  These pocket neighborhoods would be very attractive to the buyers I work with.  Young people don’t want to be isolated, and neither do many of the seniors that I talk to.
3) Backyard apartments – I assume that the push back here is concern about these apartments being occupied by students.  I understand the concerns about students. I walk along Chamberlin, Stafford, and Clark all the time and see how run down some of those homes are.  But I don’t see this as the same issue.  If a home owner who is occupying their main home wants to rent the back apt to a student, I think that situation will be self-policing.  Mingling students among owner-occupied* housing is not going to cause a neighborhood to be run down. The home owners will not stand for poor behavior or whatever the concern is.  It’s when students are lumped together where we see problems (Maiden Lane, for example). That’s just my observation.  There are a few houses on my street that are rental -they are either students or very recent graduates – but they do not get out of line.  They are the minority and if there is a concern, a homeowner nips it in the bud quickly.
I think there are ways to respect the citizens of Raleigh and address concerns without throwing these innovative ideas out completely.  There has to be a middle ground somewhere.
I hope you will consider how the UDO can be yet another proof point for how Raleigh is attracting the creative class.
*One concern is that due to NC state law, a city cannot regulate that the home-owner live on the property.

Erin Sterling Lewis is a principal of local architecture firm in situ studio, and a member of the City of Raleigh Planning Commission. She supports backyard cottages in Raleigh. With the Planning Commission, Erin extensively reviewed each chapter of the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO), and focused specifically on Chapter 2 and backyard cottages. Her experience with backyard cottages goes beyond planning and regulations in the city, having lived in a backyard cottage herself.

I lived in a backyard cottage for three years in Cameron Park. At the time, I was a single woman in my late twenties, working in an architecture firm close to downtown. When choosing a place to live, it was important for me to find something that felt safe, was located within walking distance of work and other amenities, and was a unique place I could call my own. My backyard cottage was nestled along an alley among large trees and good neighbors. I even had outdoor space for a small garden!

I loved living in my backyard cottage, and often wondered why it wasn’t a more common option for Raleigh residents, especially given the fact that our city is growing by the day and is begging for density.

Now a member of the Raleigh Planning Commission and principal of a Raleigh based architecture firm, I am delighted that the current draft of the new UDO proposes to allow backyard cottages again in the City of Raleigh, after having been omitted from the existing zoning code many years prior. The proposed ordinance carefully takes into consideration allowable heights, massing, setbacks, parking, and access, and draws inspiration from other cities’ zoning codes who allow backyard cottages. All of these restrictions set out to assure the appropriate reintroduction of this important housing type into our city. The Planning Commission worked with city staff over the summer in order to refine the ordinance to a point we all felt confident recommending approval to City Council. 

Citizen support and opposition for the proposed ordinance have been well vetted to date, and my hope is that backyard cottages will be allowed again in the City of Raleigh. I believe the pros far outweigh the cons. We have to at least give it a chance. To address citizen concern, I believe the City of Raleigh should commit to revisit the issue after 3 years, fully assess the impacts, and address any shortcomings that may come to light once the ordinance is realized. 

As the Comprehensive Planning Committee continues the discussion of Backyard Cottages (BYCs) and attempts to craft a compromise, the local media has picked up on the highly divided perspectives of city officials and the public.

Ariella Monti of the Raleigh Public Record summarizes the overall discussion of backyard cottages. It’s an informative article to those who are new to this conversation. She paints a complete story, starting with a definition, relating them to Raleigh, and explaining why people support or oppose the building type. Read the full article online.

On the cover of the current issue of Indy Week, one of the headlines reads “Outlawing Granny Flats.” Will Huntsberry highlights the diverging perspectives from last week’s Comprehensive Planning Committee meeting discussing backyard cottages. Read the full article online, or find a free copy of the printed edition this week scattered throughout town.

The Comprehensive Planning Committee met on November 21 to continue the discussion of allowing Backyard Cottages (BYCs) in Raleigh. You can watch the meeting on the City of Raleigh’s streaming site for RTN11 (Raleigh Television Network). Follow these steps:

Staff began the discussion reviewing the topics covered or recommended for further research at the last meeting (November 14), including occupancy standards, parking requirements, size/setback regulations, design standards, overlay district regulations, and peer city research. Staff proposed these suggested modifications as topics for discussion:

  • Increase rear yard setback to 20 feet
  • Decrease building separation to 10 feet
  • Cap the number of unrelated people on the property at 4
  • Require paved parking spaces
  • Require similar building materials and roof forms of BYC to main house
  • Regulate primary entrance location – not to be at rear property
  • Use a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District (NCOD) to regulate BYCs by neighborhood

Download the complete staff report to read further.

One area of focus was whether an “opt-in” situation would be a fair compromise. This would mean that BYCs would not be allowed city-wide, and a neighborhood could opt-in to allow BYCs with their specific regulations. People in support said this would protect all neighborhoods, and allow for BYCs to be allowed in only the neighborhoods that want them. People in opposition said that this would be the equivalent of keeping BYCs illegal, as it would be near impossible to gain the support of an entire neighborhood when only one citizen might be interested in building a BYC.
Another talking point was whether slumlords would exploit BYCs. Some worry that investors will purchase houses with the intent of building a BYC and maximizing on the rental potential of the property. They are also concerned that slumlords will build a BYC on an existing rental property to gain more income. These concerns are based in the idea that these properties will have low building standards, increase the number of undesired renters, and degrade the quality of existing neighborhoods.
Others believe that this is an issue that doesn’t revolve around BYCs, and that slumlords would not be interested in building BYCs. Currently, slumlords can build an attached accessory dwelling and exploit it in the same way that people are concerned BYCs will be exploited. These slumlords would rather build an attached unit taking advantage of existing infrastructure, rather than investing in the extra expense of constructing a new BYC with the additional costs of new plumbing and electric lines, and extra construction costs of foundation and grading.
This issue has yet to be resolved. The Committee recommended staff to research the idea of opting-in or opting-out of allowing BYCs, or potentially creating a new BYC Overlay District. The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for December 5th.