Wake County

Many voices, but no decision yet, in Raleigh's long-running granny flat issue

Raleigh's Growth and Natural Resource Committee hears from people in favor and against backyard cottages on May 23, 2018.
Raleigh's Growth and Natural Resource Committee hears from people in favor and against backyard cottages on May 23, 2018. ajohnson@newsobserver.com

Though they made no official decisions, Raleigh leaders got an earful Wednesday on a long divisive issue — backyard cottages.

Supporters of the dwellings vastly outnumbered opponents during a city committee meeting, saying they want to have the cottages without asking their neighbors for permission first.

The secondary, standalone buildings — sometimes called granny flats or accessory dwelling units (ADUs) — are normally used as a place for friends or family to live or are rented out for extra income. They are not permitted under Raleigh's laws, but they've been hotly contested for years.

"I think we have heard a very diverse set of thoughts and ideas," said council member Kay Crowder, who chairs the committee. "I watched people take very copious notes up here."

Crowder gave each side — those in full support of backyard cottages and those who didn’t — 45 minutes each to address the council members. There was no staff presentation outlining possible rules to allow backyard cottages, and the committee made no recommendation or took action.

There were still people interested in speaking in favor of the cottages when that side's 45 minutes ran out. Tom Anhut, chairman of the Triangle Community Coalition and longtime advocate of backyard cottages, tried to address any concerns people may have about the structures.

"The fear I continue to hear about ADUs have not borne out in the other cities," Anhut said. "They don't have the problems. Why do we think we are special and different and will have these problems when they don't?"

He wrapped up by reminding council members the people elected them to make decisions and not to delegate their decisions to individual neighborhoods.

James Demby, also in support of the cottages, said he and his wife both left college with student loans and he searched for an affordable place to live after graduation. Now that he owns a home, he said he'd like to build a backyard cottage to give someone else the chance he was looking for.

Of those concerned about backyard cottages, no one said they wanted an outright ban. Some sought more information about what was being proposed or were in support of an "opt-in" system where a backyard cottage was only allowed if a majority of nearby neighbors agreed.

Some were concerned about impacts to traffic, lighting, parking and privacy if their neighbors decided to build a backyard cottage. Worried about absentee landlords, Valerie Johnson said she's concerned backyard cottages could be used to prey on vulnerable people who don't have a choice.

Debbie Moose lives near N.C. State University and she said worries the backyard cottages would be used for short-term rentals like AirBNB, as "money-making" opportunities or as more student housing instead of for elderly in-laws or as affordable housing, as often touted.

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

Marsha Presnell-Jennette asked about the impact of stormwater runoff with the addition of granny flats and asked the council to be mindful of the "unintended consequences" of moving forward with backyard cottages.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who is not on the committee, sat in the audience and listened.

"I understand people's concerns, but I've talked to the mayors of other cities and people have come in with the same concerns from their citizens, but they haven’t seen an overwhelming number of problems," she said. "The things people perceived or thought would go wrong, they really haven't seen."

The Growth and Natural Resources Committee will meet again at 4 p.m. June 13 to bring the issue back up. Once the committee makes a recommendation, it would still have to be voted on by the full City Council.

Anna Johnson; 919-829-4807; @anna_m_johnson

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