Los Altos Hills identifies solutions around state-imposed ADU rules

New state laws may have taken away Los Altos Hills’ ability to fully regulate accessory dwelling unit development, but town leaders have nevertheless discovered a way to ultimately get what they want: incentives for good behavior. 

If adopted in May, a new ordinance introduced at Thursday’s city council meeting will provide, as Councilman George Tyson put it, “juicy” perks for residents constructing ADUs, including increased building height and additional floor area in exchange for adhering to the town’s 30-foot rear- and side-yard setback standard and for providing additional on-site parking.

“Other, similar towns are probably looking to this to see how we get away with this – I shouldn’t say that – but in terms of what we can do under the state guidelines, and I think that this sets a great model,” said Councilman Roger Spreen.

The new state legislation is meant to help ease the housing crisis by removing barriers to ADU construction. Although the laws state jurisdictions cannot require setbacks greater than 4 feet or more than one additional parking spot when secondary units are built, the California Department of Housing and Development (HCD) expressed support for the town’s incentive approach when reviewing a draft of the ordinance. Formal HCD review will follow.

Whether the HCD finds fault with council members’ intended workaround for increased square footage allowance is another matter. State law says jurisdictions’ maximum development area (MDA) and maximum floor-area requirements (MFA) must permit ADUs of at least 800 square feet – even when property owners have already maxed out both. On Thursday, the council expressed interest in town code amendments that would reduce MDA and MFA limits by 800 square feet, thus creating a “reserve” for anyone who decides they want to build an ADU. They agreed to revisit the idea once shelter-in-place orders are lifted and more opportunities for public comment arise.

If the council adopts the new ADU ordinance in May, it would take effect June 22.

Undergrounding update

Based on comparable endeavors by other jurisdictions, undergrounding Los Altos Hills’ utility wires could cost as much as $1,100 per linear foot, Tyson reported Thursday during his regular subcommittee update on the proposed project. That figure makes the cost of completing an “ice breaker” phase, a test swath of roads around the El Monte fire station meant to demonstrate the value of a utility tax to fund undergrounding for the entire town, approximately $5.4 million.

“I’m still getting pushback from my unofficial consultants about that being a very high number, but it does match some other PG&E numbers that we’ve seen,” he said.

It’s prudent to consider how the coronavirus pandemic might influence residents’ appetite for added expenses, Tyson admitted.

“I want to be attuned and receptive to the fact that the virus has caused a great shock to a lot of people’s finances. … As we move forward, we want to be understanding of the fact that adding new costs could be an issue to people,” he said.

A forthcoming town survey will determine whether residents support the project.

Committees may Zoom, too

Meeting via teleconference isn’t a foolproof process – reverberating audio and low-resolution video feed plagued the council’s own virtual assembly last week – but members of the town’s advisory committees are now welcome to try it themselves; council members approved a policy allowing the groups to convene by Zoom or similar technology until Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place order ends. Meeting hosts are eligible for up to $30 a month in reimbursement for associated expenses.

“We don’t want to hold up the important work our committees are doing as we get through the month of May and into June, but I don’t want to see us looking at this as a long-term (solution),” said Councilwoman Courtenay C. Corrigan. “This should be on an emergency basis only, when directed by the city council.”

At least three committee chairs had previously requested permission to teleconference, but misinterpretation of Newsom’s March 12 order delayed matters. Town leaders believed the portion pertaining to the Brown Act and open government laws required a physical public space for anyone who wished to participate during meetings, and City Manager Carl Cahill thought that would prove too taxing for staff.

“Let’s give this a try,” Cahill said Thursday. “If for some reason it’s not working, we would bring the policy back to the city council for further amendment if needed.”

He added that town staff is unavailable to provide technical assistance.

To review the full provisions of the Los Altos Hills ADU ordinance, visit

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