Raleigh finally OKs rules for backyard cottages. Sorta.

A backyard cottage that is used for Airbnb on Clay Street in Raleigh.
A backyard cottage that is used for Airbnb on Clay Street in Raleigh. ajohnson@newsobserver.com

After years of debate, Raleigh leaders finally voted to allow backyard cottages throughout the city.

Or so they thought.

Though the City Council voted 5-to-2 to allow backyard cottages through a special, overlay-district process Tuesday night, city leaders will have to vote again, possibly in two weeks. State law requires a two-thirds majority of Raleigh’s eight-person board (six people from among the council and the mayor) to vote in favor of an ordinance change on an initial vote.

Council members David Cox, Kay Crowder, Stef Mendell, Russ Stephenson and Dickie Thompson voted for the overlay district. Council members Corey Branch and Nicole Stewart voted against it. Mayor Nancy McFarlane was not present.

“One of the things that makes Raleigh great is that we have great neighborhoods,” Thompson said. “And to have a great neighborhood, you have to be a good neighbor. That is where it starts. This allows (backyard cottages). We are not against them, actually, we are for them. But we are also for protecting neighborhoods and letting folks be good neighbors to each other. And gives them an opportunity to weigh in on this.”

While McFarlane missed the meeting, she likely won’t be backing the overlay district in the next vote. She’s been an outspoken critic of the process.

A simple majority is all that is needed with the second vote, meaning the five votes would be enough for the change to pass.

Raleigh leaders and community members have expressed frustration with the slow, years-long effort to allow backyard cottages in the city.

The smaller buildings are normally separated from the home and have been called granny flats and accessory dwelling units (ADU). Supporters say they are an easy way to add affordable housing and help homeowners pay their own housing costs. Opponents worry that cottages can change the character of neighborhoods by adding residents and causing traffic, lighting and privacy concerns.

Backyard cottages already exist in several neighborhoods including Cameron Park but were not allowed in the city during the 1970s.

One of the sticking points for critics is the requirement that the overlay district be 10 acres of contiguous properties and that property owners within that district be asked if they would like to be in it. People will not be able to rent out their backyard cottage for short-term rentals, like Airbnb.

Even if the ballots come back negative, it won’t stop someone who wants a backyard cottage from moving forward with the rezoning. If the rezoning is successful and the overlay district is created — which is expected to take five or six months — people still have to go through the building and inspection process.

During the public hearing Tuesday night, only one person spoke in favor of the overlay process. Ted Shear argued that many of Raleigh’s neighborhoods already have overlays or private covenants that restrict backyard cottages from being built.

About a dozen people spoke against the overlay district but all said they wanted backyard cottages. Few will be built under Raleigh’s list of rules, they said.

Neighbors, council members and the public shouldn’t have to know why a grandmother wants to live with her family or why a family wants to have an in-home nanny, Jenn Peeler Truman said during the public hearing.

‘It is a political popularity contest in the making,” Truman said.

Olen Watson III, a previous city council candidate and likely future candidate, asked what happened when a black family wants to build a backyard cottage but has “a bunch of racist neighbors” that prevents them from getting the cottage.

Andrew Blackburn, government affairs director for the Raleigh Regional Association of Realtors, said the association opposes the overlay district. It’s his job, he said, to watch what council does and relay it to his members.

“How can an average citizen who doesn’t get paid to keep an eye on what the city of Raleigh is doing possibly understand the steps that they need to follow and the rules that they need to abide by if all they want to do is make sure that their aging parents can live next to them?” he asked. “How can they be expected to do that when they are trying to manage so many other things in their life?’

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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