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Oregon city had its own ADU fight before issue came to Santa Fe

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

While factions in Santa Fe are battling over proposed changes to the land use code that would allow homeowners to rent out casitas, guesthouses or other “accessory dwelling units” (ADUs) on single-family lots without having to live in the main house themselves, the city of Springfield, Oregon, has been there and done that.

In April last year, measures that loosened Springfield’s development code covering ADUs, also known as “granny flats,” went into effect, making them legal throughout the city, including in historic districts.

Similar to what’s happening in Santa Fe, the change generated debate, part of a focus on ADUs nationally as housing costs and availability have become critical issues around the country.

While there was much support for ADUs in general in Springfield, dropping that city’s limited owner-occupancy requirement to rent out a second unit – the requirement previously applied only to an historic area – was met with resistance from people who wanted to preserve the historic district’s character.

The Springfield City Council ultimately went against the recommendation of the city’s Historic Commission, which supported keeping the owner-occupancy rule for the Washburne Historic District, an 84-acre neighborhood established soon after Springfield’s founding in 1885 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The only opposition we had to any of the code amendments at all were from residents of the Washburne Historic District and the Historic Commission,” said Sandy Belson, comprehensive planning manager for the city of Springfield.

“People were concerned about absentee landlords. They wanted someone invested in the district to be there to make sure that neighborhood character and aesthetic was maintained.”

She said the City Council decided to go against the Historic Commission’s recommendation because it wanted its laws to be consistent throughout the city.

Previously, ADUs had been allowed on any single-family home lot in any residential district in Springfield, except in the Washburne Historic District.

And while the majority of the public comment the city received supported loosening regulations on ADUs, there was opposition against the dropping the owner-occupancy requirement.

“I live next to a rental house with an absentee landlord,” Washburne resident Nancy Gronfeldt wrote in an email to the city. “My first years here were spent dealing with noisy, irresponsible, dangerous neighbors who never let me sleep.”

Fortunately, those neighbors moved out and a “nice librarian and her family” moved in, allowing for her to “enjoy the relative peace and quiet and comfort of low-density living” in the Washburne district, which she felt could have its historic status jeopardized by more residential density.

Bruce Berg is a former city councilor, member of the Historic Commission, resident of the Washburne Historic District and the first president of the neighborhood association. He wrote that loosening restrictions on ADUs was a good idea, but not in the Washburne neighborhood.

“Without the owner-occupancy requirement, you will absolutely find real estate investors turn homes within Washburne into rental properties and, over the next 20 years, I guarantee you will find the current (neighborhood association) dissolved and the current neighborhood itself a shell of what it is today,” he protested. “I will have no satisfaction in telling you at that time ‘I told you so.’ ”

Santa Fe fight

The same kinds of complaints have been heard in Santa Fe, where Don Cubero Avenue in Santa Fe’s South Capital area has become the focus of the debate over ADUs. A casita renter there faces having to leave her place after neighbors complained to City Hall that the absentee owner of the property rented out both the main house and the casita, contrary to existing city code.

Others opposed to lifting the owner-occupancy requirement in Santa Fe say it would result in a dramatic change to the land use code, essentially eliminating the R-1 zoning throughout the city, commercializing residential areas by allowing for duplex rentals, and increasing density, changing the character of some of Santa Fe’s oldest neighborhoods.

But supporters – including Mayor Alan Webber – argue that allowing casita rentals by absentee property owners is a small step toward solving Santa Fe’s chronic and severe shortage of affordable and rental housing.

The idea that the code change will affect neighborhood character is fearmongering about renters and hasn’t been proven in cities without owner-occupant requirements, the say. ADUs in existing neighborhoods are also an environmentally friendly alternative to urban sprawl on the outskirts and don’t require building new roads or utilities, according to supporters of the code changes.

Santa Fe city officials postponed plans for a public hearing on ADU amendments that had been scheduled for last month, saying they wanted to wait until after a series of information sessions by the ADU-supportive Santa Fe Housing Action Coalition, completion of a city-commissioned study on the impact of short-term rentals like Airbnb units, and more staff research into what other cities are doing to regulate short-term rentals. “It makes sense to have all of these components of our housing strategy together to put the ADU ordinance in the right context,” a city spokeswoman said in an email to the Journal explaining the reason for the postponement.

Housing strategy

Relaxing restrictions on ADUs is part of the housing strategy in Springfield, a city of about 60,000 residents just east of the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.

In 2016, the Springfield City Council directed staff to evaluate housing needs, and suggest ways to increase housing supply and accessibility to affordable housing.

“Housing is very tight here, both ownership and rental,” said Belson, the Springfield planning manager.

The strategy is also intended to create a more diverse housing market. As part of the plan, Belson said, the city is working to create awareness about ADUs. On its website, the city promotes the benefits of building an ADU that are in line with the arguments made by ADU housing advocates Santa Fe. The list of positives includes:

• Increasing the inventory of housing, especially in the small rental unit market where the housing supply is tightest.

• Increasing density without the need to add infrastructure.

• Opportunities for intergenerational living.

• Diversification of demographics in existing neighborhoods.

• Financial benefits for people interested in renting homes.

• Stimulating economic development by providing work for builders and contractors.

To further encourage the construction of ADUs, Springfield temporarily waived “system development charges,” like stormwater and transportation impact fees, which Belson said can save a property owner about $6,000.

Belson said there has been a noticeable increase in applications for ADUs since the new regulations went into effect April 4, 2018.

She said that the city had received just two applications in the eight years prior to the new regulations. But one year after the new regulations went into effect, the city had received 12 applications for ADUs, eight of which had by then received building permits and two of them had already been constructed.

Berg, the Springfield advocate against dropping the owner-occupant requirement for renting ADUs in the Washburne Historic District, still serves as chair of Springfield’s Historic Commission.

He said in an interview this week that it’s too early to tell if the new regulations have had an impact, other than to say there has been an increase in ADU applications.

But he hasn’t changed his mind about the owner-occupancy requirement.

“If you get rid of owner-occupancy, it’s going to change the make-up of the neighborhood,” he said, adding that he knows the city has good intentions about relaxing ADU regulations. “It’s always wonderful to have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean the reality is going to turn out wonderful.”

While Belson said Springfield started the process to relax regulations on ADUs earlier, two years ago, the Oregon state Legislature passed a bill in 2017 that required a city with a population of greater than 2,500, or a county with a population of greater than 15,000, to allow for at least one ADU to be built on lots zoned for detached single-family dwellings within the urban growth boundary, subject to reasonable local regulations having to do with siting and design.

A bill currently under consideration by the Oregon Legislature, which is in session through the end of this month, would require cities with populations between 10,000 and 24,999 outside the Portland metro area to allow duplexes on lots within a single-family residential zone by June 30, 2021. Cities with populations of 25,000 or more and all cities over 1,000 that are within the Portland metro area would be required to allow duplexes on all lots that allow single-family residences, as well as triplexes, fourplexes, cottage clusters and town homes by right in the same zoning by June 30, 2022.

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