Raleigh planning board at odds with City Council over ‘granny flats’

Some members of the city’s planning board say the Raleigh City Council is ramming through rules for backyard cottages and granny flats that are so “overly complex” few people will ever build them.

Several Planning Commission members feel their hands were tied after the council instructed them not to consider alternatives to proposed rules for accessory dwelling units, also known as backyard cottages and granny flats.

The advisory commission debated the proposed rules last week before deciding to send them to a committee for more discussion.

“My personal philosophy is when we review these things we should give our honest assessment about whether we think what’s in front of us is workable, good and addresses the issues at hand,” Commissioner Eric Braun said. “Not because it’s been around a long time and not because that’s all we think council will adopt, because that is not our role.”

Backyard cottages are normally small, standalone rooms in a person’s backyard for guests or family to stay or rented out for extra income. They can also be rooms built over a garage or in basements. They are currently illegal to build though several can be found within Raleigh.

Supporters see them as an easy way to add affording housing in established neighborhoods.

Overlay onerous?

Raleigh leaders have debated rules for backyard cottages for more than five years. This summer, the council’s Growth and Natural Resources Committee settled on rules that would require getting the surrounding neighbors’ blessing through a special district of at least 10 acres.

The Growth and Natural Resources Committee sent a memo to city staff and the Planning Commission listing what should be included in the rules. It included an overlay district and size, lighting, parking and use criteria.

It’s that memo, along with other information from staff, that left commission members feeling like they couldn’t suggest alternatives. The Growth and Natural Resources committee has five council members, which makes up a majority of the eight-person Raleigh City Council.

Planning staff couldn’t advise the planning commission about alternatives because of the memo, Planning Commissioner Edie Jeffreys said. Having gone through an overlay process herself, she said she knew how difficult it could be to get neighbors all “on the same page.” Instead of an overlay district, she wanted to allow backyard cottages on a case-by-case basis.

At least one planning commissioner was prepared to vote for the recommendations though he acknowledged he might be the only one.

“I think a site-specific rezoning would be preferable, but we’re not at the beginning [of the discussion],” Planning Commissioner Bob Geary said, noting the more than five years the city has already spent on the issue. “We are well along, and the proposal sent to us by City Council is the one they intend to adopt. I think.”

Raleigh could amend the rules in the future, he said.

Supporters of backyard cottages but not the proposed overlay districts worry the rules will be too cumbersome, while supporters of the districts say they will give neighbors a say.

During a Growth and Natural Resources Committee meeting last summer, several people gave their opinions about the proposed regulations.

Tom Anhut, a long-time supporter of backyard cottages, said the fears people have about them haven’t come true in other cities.

“Why do we think we are special and different and will have these problems when they don’t,” he asked.

Backyard cottages that could be used for short-term rentals like AirBNB and for student housing were some of the problems Debbie Moose said she was worried about. The proposed rules would prevent the cottages from being used for short-term rentals, which are also technically illegal within the city.

“One size fits all does not fit every neighborhood,” she said.

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