Raleighs proposed new Unified Development Ordinance has a number of significant problems, including allowing backyard cottages within 10 feet of the side and back lot lines in residential neighborhoods. Although cottages can be charming and useful when well-regulated and when part of a neighborhood plan, they will mean bye-bye backyards for Raleighs existing green neighborhoods and are an invitation for abuse by absentee property owners. Consider:
• Allowing backyard cottages can double the number of free-standing dwellings in an area, without zoning changes required. Dont be fooled by the charming name: they are just backyard houses.
• North Carolina law does not allow cities to require on-site owner occupancy on a lot with a backyard cottage, gutting our ability to regulate these properly. This will be especially problematic in neighborhoods with low-income or rental housing.
• Four unrelated people will be allowed in the primary dwelling and two in the backyard cottage. Many of these people will have sweethearts, cars and pets, adding to the traffic and noise in neighborhoods.
• Backyard cottages can be tall. The 15-foot wall height and 25-foot roof height is measured from the front, but may seem much taller to a downhill neighbor when seen from the lot line. Flat roofs can have decks with 4-foot walls around them, topped with shade structures that rise to 37 feet.
• Backyard cottages can be near. Compared to the primary dwelling, backyard cottages can be built 20 feet closer to the rear property line in areas zoned R-1, R-2 and R-4 and 10 feet closer for R-6 and R-10. (The R-number shows the number of units per acre). This reduces the space between dwellings by 20 to 40 feet. Their porches, balconies, outside staircases, AC units and more can extend into that setback.
• The UDO requires that the backyard cottages be at least 35 feet from the main house, encouraging placement along the back lot line where they most affect the backdoor neighbors.
• Backyard cottages increase water runoff due to additional hardscape. They can significantly change the views from nearby backyards and isolate the remaining trees in nearby lots, increasing the possibility of storm damage.
There is already a provision for an accessory apartment attached to the main dwelling which will provide many of the benefits of the backyard cottage, including private space for family members and rental income. Accessory dwellings have to be built within the same setbacks as the primary dwelling, reducing their impact on a neighborhood. If these cottages are indeed for Granny, why put her 35 feet away from the main house?
The UDOs proposed infill provisions push building into the backyard. Where else can it go? You wont be able to build a tall house between two short houses in areas zoned for 4 to 10 houses per acre. Any new side walls can only be 22 feet tall at the lot line or the average height of your two neighbors walls across the lot line, whichever is highest. The walls can be a foot higher for every foot away from the property line up 40 feet. But theres just not room to do this in many places where lovely new homes are being built in aging communities, such as on Farrior Road.
Oddly, these restrictions just look next door, not across the street or over the back fence. Even if you live in a sea of McMansions, its the height next door that matters.
Neither the infill nor the height rules consider slope. Building height is measured at the front of each house, even though houses up hill seem taller. If your lot slopes down from the front, you can build a fourth story in the back. But if your lot slopes toward the front, the limit is three.
Most troubling of all, the UDO was developed with an assumption of good behavior and good design. Even though serious citizen concerns are being raised at the Raleigh Citizens Advisory Council meetings and elsewhere, Planning Director Mitch Silver shrugs off requests for neighborhood protections, saying that even if we spend a year going through this code, there will be innovative individuals out there. Hed rather pass it and make improvements later.
When Raleighs City Council discusses the residential chapter of the UDO on Monday, it should not rule against innovation, but for protecting neighborhoods and our city. Once someone builds a nightmare next to your house, its too late to start the very long process of fixing a zoning code that we already know is broken.
Linda Watson is chair of the Glenwood Citizens Advisory Council in Raleigh.