Los Altos Hills leaders rush to regulate ADU threat to town's 'semi-rural' nature

The race is on between Los Altos Hills leaders forced to create a new accessory dwelling unit ordinance and town residents hoping to construct ADUs before they can.

The Los Altos Hills City Council and Planning Commission convened Thursday to discuss six new California laws related to ADUs and JADUs, junior accessory dwelling units contained within a home. The legislation, intended to address the state’s housing crisis by easing rules governing secondary-unit construction, has local leaders fearing higher population and home and traffic densities that could degrade the town’s often-lauded “semi-rural” look and feel. Nevertheless, the laws took effect Jan. 1, and they reign supreme until cities craft compliant ordinances.

“Unlike a lot of times where we say, ‘Put the brakes on this, take lots of time and just really suss it out,’ this is a situation where I don’t think we have anything to lose; I don’t think we could come up with something that is worse than what the state has,” said City Manager Carl Cahill.

That’s because the applicable State Senate and Assembly bills are a lot less strict than Los Altos Hills leaders would like them to be. Currently, the town only permits ADUs on parcels of an acre or larger, limits their size to 1,000 square feet and requires 30-foot side and rear setbacks from property lines. Among the provisions of the new legislation are allowances for construction of ADUs of up to 1,200 square feet on any property with a single-family dwelling regardless of lot size, and required setbacks are capped at 4 feet. The laws also eliminate local discretionary planning and zoning review. Neighbors won’t be notified of planned projects because they will no longer have the ability to fight them.

All secondary unit ordinances are subject to approval by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, but it’s considered possible for local jurisdictions to press for slight variances to what’s been mandated, explained City Attorney Steve Mattas. Los Altos Hills, for example, might argue that its 1-acre minimum lot standard means local properties are better suited to hosting more secondary units than those parcels for which the state laws were intended: typical California lots measuring 5,000 square feet or so.

“You don’t get the ability to override state law or override their interpretation of state law, but you do have some ability to … make a presentation,” Mattas said.

Recognizing that it behooves the town to embrace secondary-unit construction as it counts toward its state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation of affordable housing, councilmembers and commissioners agreed they will make more headway by working with residents rather than fighting them. They proposed offering incentives like granting increased development floor area to those who incorporate greater setbacks in their plans but dismissed the notion many would be motivated by reduced or waived permitting and review fees.

Resident Malika Junaid, a founder of a local architecture and design firm, echoed that perception, and told the council and commission her clients really only care about maximizing the size of their homes. Concern that future local rules will restrict ADUs beyond state law, she added, has clients urging her to press forward with projects before the town’s ordinance is approved.

“They should have implemented something tonight just to put something on the books,” Junaid said after the meeting.

Instead, the road ahead involves providing town staff with enough time to incorporate meeting feedback into a new draft ordinance. Planning director Zachary Dahl hopes the council and commission will be able to review it in March so it can take effect 30 days later.

And the end result may not be so terrible after all, said Councilman George Tyson.

“I just want to step back and remind us what this is all about: There’s a housing crisis and there’s a statewide initiative to increase density, and it’s been done with maybe kind of a rough hand or a broad approach, and we have to live with that,” he said. “And I think all of us are conceptually OK with the thought of increasing ADUs and meeting our commitments and not paying a fine for not coming through.”

The next city council meeting is scheduled 6 p.m. Thursday.

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