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. 

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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.

District D Neighborhood Alliance (DDNA) is a listserve of leaders and community members in District D, represented by City Councilmember Thomas Crowder. The current conversation has initiated a new position and petition. Thomas states:

I would like to propose that BYC’s and ADU’s/apartments (with high standard requirements of course) be allowed as an entitlement option under the City’s Neighborhood Conservation Overlay District (NCOD) only. Rather than this entitlement becoming the rule for all neighborhoods within the city without restrictive covenants, it none the less becomes an exception for both old and new neighborhoods who wish to have this housing option. It also allows our citizens to have a say in, and control over, the future of their individual neighborhoods. As noted above, all of the high standards recommended by Mayor Pro-Tem Stephenson during the hearing should still be implemented as conditions for allowing BYC’s and ADU’s within an NCOD to protect these neighborhoods long term.

While many residents have spoken on this subject, the majority of Raleigh’s citizens are totally unaware of this provision within the proposed code. By making this entitlement an option under NCOD’s, each individual neighborhood resident will be made aware through public notice of the communities intent to allow them and before they are implemented. There will be no surprises and democracy at the highest level will prevail.

Thank you all for seriously considering this compromise proposal to allow backyard cottages and accessory apartment units where they are wanted and prohibited where they are problematic and not desired.

Under these conditions, BYCs would be illegal citywide, and only allowed as each neighborhood agrees that they should be allowed in their community. There were many DDNA members that spoke in support of this compromise, but not everyone in the DDNA agrees:

[This] version of a compromise will create absolutely no districts in Raleigh where this particular useful policy of the UDO could have affect. This is not because the majority of citizens would not support a change in policy, but rather due to the majority’s inherent indifference in making a change. On the other hand,
persons opposing BYC and ADU’s would have a much easier time convincing a neighborhood to ‘opt out’ if the neighborhood really wanted to. In other words, it is far easier to marshal supporters for a meeting to maintain the status quo rather than for change. This is one of the reasons why the UDO is such a special opportunity for our city…

…Cottage houses and accessory dwellings have had a long and successful history in cities such as Savannah, Richmond, etc. (cities who had larger populations than Raleigh until modern times). They contribute to a richer social fabric throughout the whole city when done properly.

Join the BYC conversation at today’s Comprehensive Planning Committee meeting at 2pm in Council Chambers.

The Comprehensive Planning Committee met yesterday to discuss the heavily debated topic of allowing backyard cottages (BYCs) in Raleigh. I encourage you to watch the meeting on the City of Raleigh’s streaming site for RTN11 (Raleigh Television Network). Follow these steps:

Russ Stephenson led the meeting, starting with the idea that BYCs are good in places where they improve the neighborhood, but have the potential to hurt a neighborhood, based in the fact that the City cannot regulate that lots with BYCs are homeowner-occupied.
Staff presented a Case Study showing the number of eligible and ineligible lots in 5 neighborhoods that would allow BYCs, and would work with the lot dimensions. There were 946 potential parcels that fit the square-footage criteria. Of these, 543 (57.4%) were eligible, and 403 (42.6%) were ineligible. Here is the breakdown per studied neighborhood:
  • Brentwood: 127 (66%) eligible, 64 (34%) ineligible
  • Five Points: 88 (62%) eligible, 54 (38%) ineligible
  • Drewry Hills: 34 (34%) eligible, 67 (66%) ineligible
  • Mordecai: 122 (53%) eligible, 108 (47%) ineligible
  • NC State: 110 (59%) eligible, 76 (41%) ineligible
  • Southwest: 49 (60%) eligible, 33 (40%) ineligible
Russ Stephenson proposed a set of standards (low and high) to regulate the design/quality of BYCs, as a way to allow BYCs while setting restrictions to ease concerns. The elements that he proposed would be regulated varied from parking/driveway surfaces (erodible or nonerodible), to setting a maximum number of unrelated residents (4-6 or 3 or less).
The floor was opened to public comments, and nearly everyone present spoke. There were many who spoke against BYCs, but there were more supporters. See the video to hear all comments. I spoke at 2:15:18. In the coming days, I will highlight the positions of some of these people to show a range of perspectives.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the Committee reviewed a list of topics for further research. The next Committee meeting to discuss BYCs is yet to be scheduled.

Here is an invitation I received for the Comprehensive Planning Committee meeting that will be held tomorrow. Please attend to share the voice of the public.

The City Council’s Comprehensive Planning Committee will hold its initial Backyard Cottages (BYCs) discussion next Wednesday, November 14th in Council Chambers. The meeting starts at 5pm and this item will be discussed beginning at approximately 5:30pm.

This meeting is open to anyone, but in seeking a good distribution of opinions and ideas, I’ve asked the Mayor and Councilors to help suggest citizens – including you, who:

  • may have an interest in this discussion, and if so, who:
  • live in a neighborhood where BYCs would be permitted
  • are able to represent the interests of the neighborhood where you live 
  • are willing to work toward an outcome that promotes BYCs where they will improve nearby property values and discourages them where they will hurt property values

If you cannot attend, you will be able to (1) watch the meeting later via streaming video on the City website and provide comments via email and/or (2) provide comments at a second meeting on this topic, most likely on November 28th.