Raleigh council nixes backyard cottages from city’s growth plan

ccampbell@newsobserver.comFebruary 13, 2013 

— Put away the blueprints for grandma’s place: The Raleigh City Council won’t allow backyard cottages under its new development code.

The 7-1 vote Monday stripped a proposal allowing the cottages from a set of guidelines governing the city’s growth. It came after months of heated debate on whether to allow elderly relatives and young renters to live in cottages behind existing homes. The practice is not currently allowed, although the city’s planning commission endorsed a change to allow the cottages in 2012.

A backyard cottage typically is a roughly 800-square-foot outbuilding with a kitchen, bathroom and living area. Sometimes known as “granny flats” or “mother-in-laws” they’re popular for older relatives who need a private space and college students who need cheap rent.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Baldwin said she likes the idea of backyard cottages, but the proposed rules didn’t address all the potential negative impacts.

Critics have complained the cottages could bring noise, appearance and parking problems.

“I just don’t think that we’re ready to move forward on this,” Baldwin said.

With opposition from a number of neighborhood organizations, the council’s debate focused on whether to create a pilot program that would allow cottages in a single neighborhood.

In talking to residents of the Mordecai neighborhood north of downtown, Councilman Russ Stephenson said there’s interest in backyard cottages. But the council voted down a proposal to have city planners study whether enough Mordecai residents support the idea.

“There is room to continue this conversation,” he said. “It would be great to have Mordecai weigh in and see how they feel about it.”

Baldwin said a pilot program wouldn’t determine whether cottages could work citywide.

“What might fit Mordecai might not fit another community,” she said.

Councilman Bonner Gaylord cast the lone vote against scrapping the cottage plan. He’s argued that they’d create a useful tool for growth.

“This is the time to take the bold step forward,” he said recently. “We know that we’re running out of land ... and how to densify is going to be a problem for the next 20 years.

“I think backyard cottages are a great way to be able to densify existing subdivisions and neighborhoods, provided we can find a way to mitigate any impacts neighbors might experience,” he added.

During a hearing last month, several residents said they didn’t find Gaylord’s vision appealing, though they agreed to the neighborhood opt-in.

“Many of us moved to Raleigh because we don’t want a dense neighborhood,” said Linda Watson, chairwoman of the Glenwood Citizens Advisory Council. “My neighborhood is particularly at risk. We have deep backyards, big trees and we’re near (N.C.) State. This could be a disaster for our neighborhood.”

Some council members wanted to ban backyard cottages on rental properties, but a state court ruling won’t allow that. Instead, the council considered a long list of regulations to make sure the tiny homes don’t become a nuisance. Only four unrelated people could live on the lot – two in the cottage – and square footage, building materials and property line setbacks would be regulated.

City planners worried the rules might have unintended consequences. The setbacks, for example, might push the cottages to the center of a backyard.

Despite the problems, backyard cottages aren’t a dead issue, but don’t expect action anytime soon.

“I’d like us to really vet this issue,” Councilman Thomas Crowder said, referring to adding apartments to homes.

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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