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Commission hears update on Accessory Dwelling Units, aims to form ad hoc committee


A study session during a meeting last week provided an update on potential code changes related to Accessory Dwelling Units, considered a number of in-depth questions, and took the first steps to form an ad hoc committee to study the issue further with the intended direction of including input from members of the public and industry professionals.

On Thursday (Sept. 9), the Planning Commission reviewed recommendations from city staff on potential code changes intended to reduce regulatory barriers, streamline the approval process and expand the potential capacity of ADUs. 

After a thorough staff presentation, most of the commission discussion revolved around creating an ad hoc committee. 

The questions and feedback from commissioners are important, but an ad hoc committee would bring in some expert advice, Commissioner Mark Rosene suggested. Experts could help advise them on potential impacts to the community based on some of these decisions, he said, as there might be some unintended consequences.

An ad hoc committee might be able to pick the minds of the architects out there who know how to adjust and work within the code.

“I think we should invite some people that are the ones that we would bring to the table when we’re designing a community and look at what the consequences of some of this would be,” Rosene said. 

The ad hoc committee itself would be comprised of members of the Planning Commission, Assistant City Attorney Yolanda Summerhill explained, but members of the public (including architects, developers, or other professionals) could be invited to provide input and share insight and ideas.

Commissioners were very much in favor of including the public in the process. 

It’s very important to have people listen who have certain skill sets and experience in this area, in addition to staff’s knowledge on the subject, said Chair Lee Lowrey.

“Let’s put together some of those ideas,” Lowrey said. “City council can always expand on that after we come with our recommendations.”

Commissioner Erik Weigand was a bit concerned that such an important issue might be over their heads as planning commissioners and thought it should head to city council for input on forming the ad hoc committee. 

“I want to make sure that the best body is selected in this process,” Weigand said. “It’s a very huge component of the city moving forward.”

Staff can definitely bring the idea up to the council and report back to the Planning Commission, Deputy Community Development Director Jim Campbell said. An ad hoc committee at the commission level will work a little faster within their timeline, he noted. 

They’re recommending the ADU plan, they’re not implementing it, Lowrey noted. Council can ask for more studying, or expand the proposals, or modify the plan however they see fit.

Commission hears houses

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Photo by Sara Hall

The city is looking at potential code changes to encourage Accessory Dwelling Units

Only a few residents spoke during public comment, but all were in favor of the ad hoc committee. 

The only way to properly deal with this complicated issue is with an ad hoc committee, agreed resident Nancy Scarbrough, who is very much in favor of ADUs and pushed for the 1,000-unit target.

The questions presented and laws that have changed will affect all of this, she said.

“This really needs to be torn apart and put back together in a reasonable way,” Scarbrough said. “It’s not an impossible task.”

They have several years to build the ADUs and there are many that only need minor modifications. They need to take the time to really study it and conduct a lot of public outreach, she added. 

Certain neighborhoods would work better for some portions of the suggested plan for ADUs, Weigand noted, but not every area of the city will be suitable for everything proposed. The public should be aware and involved in this, he added, noting the late hour and small audience at the meeting. There are still a lot of questions and concerns, he added, agreeing with the idea for an ad hoc committee. 

“I think people would get concerned if they saw some of this stuff pop up right next to their house,” Weigand said. 

He had some of his own specific questions, but they may not be relevant until the ad hoc committee can dig into the issue, Weigand said. 

“Let’s form this ad hoc committee that really discusses the weeds and the ramifications of each one of these proposals because there is a significant amount and I don’t think that this body, at this hour, is qualified to really do the people’s work that’s required on this particular item,” Weigand said. “I just want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing tonight that’s best for the residents.”

The city has recently prepared a 2021-2029 draft Housing Element Update in response to the 6th Cycle Regional Housing Needs Assessment allocation of 4,845 new housing units assigned to Newport Beach. 

It’s been a challenge figuring out how the city can fulfill that.

“What we’ve found is we don’t really have any vacant land, so we’re having to focus on potentially rezoning existing underutilized land for higher density in-fill development,” said Principal Planner Jaime Murillo.

As they work diligently on the housing element update, one of the strategies is to utilize ADUs in a significant way to generate housing production in the community in an effort to meet the city’s assigned RHNA allocations, Campbell said. Council is supportive of finding ways to incentivize and increase the production of ADUs, he added.

ADUs are an alternative to rezoning, Murillo said. The August 13 draft Housing Element aggressively anticipates that approximately 1,000 ADUs can be permitted through the eight-year planning period. 

Given high land values and limited opportunities for new residential growth, combined with a strong public outreach and development incentives, the city believes ADU development can be a realistic strategy to help achieve the assigned housing needs while protecting the character and quality of life. 

“The city council, in the draft housing element, has set forth a pretty aggressive target of 1,000 ADUs to be planned for in the next eight-year planning cycle, so that’s about 125 a year,” Murillo said. “So we have a lot of catching up to do.”

Murillo explained that ADUs already constructed in the city have primarily been done with single-family homes, like an ADU on the second floor of a residence or a detached ADU above a garage.

Before 2019 the city did not allow for second units within a single-family development at all, Murillo said. To address the housing crisis, the state then adopted major changes in housing laws that “stripped” the city’s ability to regulate ADUs and they had to be permitted under certain scenarios.

“There was a lot of fear at the time, with these new regulations, that there would be a proliferation of ADUs throughout the city,” Murillo said. “The direction we received from the community, the Planning Commission and the City Council was to comply with state law but be as restrictive as possible.”

However, there hasn’t been a major influx of ADUs, and the community has been slow to adapt to the idea as residents learn more about them, Murillo noted. 

The city averages about 25 ADUs per year. There are currently 85 in various stages of the permitting and construction process. 

With 32 units, the Mariners/Dover Shores neighborhood has the most, followed by Newport Heights with 17, then a handful in Corona del Mar, Balboa Island, Santa Ana Heights and West Newport. The most popular ADU type are conversions, or converting existing space into an ADU, Murillo said.

Staff anticipates that the city will continue to see year after year growth in ADU development.

A dashboard and website about ADUs in Newport Beach will soon be available to the public, Murillo said.

Commission hears Castaways houses

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Photo by Sara Hall

An ad hoc committee is being formed to further study Accessory Dwelling Units

Promoting ADU development is a major component of recently adopted council policy K-4 Reducing the Barriers to the Creation of Housing, he added. That includes direction to revise the code to be more permissive, more public outreach, pre-approved plans to help reduce the time and cost for property owners, and an amnesty program for the suspected hundreds of unpermitted units in the city. If they can get them to come in, permit the units and make them safe, the city can get RHNA credit for those, Murillo added.

A key component of the ADU strategy is revising the regulations to ease the development restrictions and create additional ADU opportunities. Potential revisions to the city’s ADU regulations include:

–Expanding opportunities for ADU construction in multi-unit developments.

–Reducing costs for ADU construction.

–Providing incentives for ADU development.

–Making ADU development more attractive for investors and developers.

–Reducing parking requirements.

–Removing architectural design constraints.

Considering all of these potential revisions during the study session last week, staff posed several questions to commissioners, including if the city should:

–Allow ADU additions to an existing multi-unit and conversions of existing living space?

–Allow ADUs in a new multi-unit development?

–Provide additional floor area as an incentive?

–Reduce parking requirements as an incentive?

While asking these questions and looking for feedback from commissioners, staff also had their own suggestions.

Staff recommended to allow ADU additions and conversions of living space, which they believe will spur development and help permit illegal units (amnesty program). City staff also recommended allowing new development, which would help encourage ADUs and assist SB330 trapped properties, but limit it to the smaller properties of duplexes and triplexes only and to only allow one ADU.

Regarding additional floor space as an incentive, staff recommended allowing exterior basement access, but to limit access to minimum necessary. Staff did not recommend allowing 800 square feet of bonus for new developments or to allow larger units in areas with larger lot sizes, which would further complicate the code.

“The idea here is not to change setbacks, or allow for increased height or increased bulk,” Murillo said. “What we think we should do is little tweaks that allow for more development but that can still control the overall bulk and mass of these properties to maintain the community character.”

Although staff noted that eliminating the 50 percent size limit for attached ADUs would simplify the code and recommended that idea to the commission.

Considering reducing parking requirements as an incentive, staff recommended eliminating replacement parking for garage conversions in the coastal zone, but modified to only parking impacted areas, possibly within 500 feet of the beach or harbor.

“We want to be careful here,” Murillo noted.

Staff also recommended allowing increased height for ADUs above a garage, even if the main home is not parking compliant as it simplifies code and still encourages some parking to be provided.

After receiving direction at the study session, staff will develop the proposed amendments for the Planning Commission to review at a future public hearing to make recommendations to the City Council for their consideration. California Coastal Commission approval will also be required for amendments to Title 21 affecting properties within the coastal zone.


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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