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New law on in-laws

The state eases the approval process for owners who want to add a second dwelling to their property.

October 12, 2003|Michelle Hofmann | Special to The Times

Most days homeowner Dusty Wakefield likes what his neighbors have to say. Still, the Burbank resident is glad the city can now issue permits for second dwelling units without public hearings.

A new state law took effect July 1 to ease restrictions on second dwelling units, also known as in-law units or granny flats, in single-family and multifamily neighborhoods. The law, known as Assembly Bill 1866 before it was signed, requires local agencies to approve or deny second-unit applications and related appeals without public notice and hearings before an administrative review board.

Some view it as a step toward alleviating California's affordable housing crunch. Others see it as a threat to the character of residential neighborhoods, increasing density and demand for parking.

Wakefield expects the law to streamline his request to convert a 500-square-foot bonus room off his detached two-car garage into a one-bedroom, one-bath living space for family members who visit monthly from Northern California.

Though he first planned to start the project in February, the DreamWorks animator held off until the law went into effect. Wakefield thinks it has been worth the wait: "It means less paperwork, less hassle and less money spent."

Before the new law, California residents hoping to add a second unit had to seek approval through a process of public notice, typically to neighboring property owners within 300 feet, and public hearings before a planning commission, city council or board of supervisors.

The hearings often became contentious and led to neighborhood opposition, lengthy delays and denial of the permit, according to Ron Kingston, a lobbyist for the California Assn. of Realtors, which cosponsored the bill.

Will silencing the neighbors make approval easier? In Burbank it will at least make it quicker and cheaper. The previous permit process took up to five months and cost $608. Under the new law, applications should be completed in less than three months and cost $480.

In addition to removing the public hearing process, the law allows second-unit applications that meet established local standards for parking, setback, architectural review, lot coverage, maximum size and other criteria to be reviewed and approved at an administrative level by planning or zoning staff.

Burbank, which averaged three or four applications a year during the 1990s, received five applications from July 1 through September of this year, according to Art Bashmakian, a city planner. Still, Bashmakian does not expect the simpler application process will significantly increase the numbers.

How much the law will affect the rest of Los Angeles is difficult to determine, said Con Howe, director of planning for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning. "It's hard to predict the number of applications."

The law means applicants who meet the city standards for second dwelling units cannot be denied, Howe said, but the city of Los Angeles still has stringent requirements for legal second units, "and the new state law doesn't change that."

Although second dwellings are not tracked at the state level, Marc Brown, a staff attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which cosponsored the bill with CAR, hopes the new legislation will increase the supply of affordable housing. "My guess is that several thousand units may get built as a result of AB 1866 that otherwise would not have been built."

But the one-size-fits-all law fails to address the individual needs of California cities, said Dan Carrigg, a legislative representative for the League of California Cities, a grass-roots network of city officials that opposed the bill. Carrigg said he believes land-use issues are better settled at the local level.

Torrance resident Sandi Monda, who served on that city's planning commission for eight years, agrees that second units should be under local control.

"My husband and I bought in our neighborhood because we did not want to live in an area that had duplexes, townhomes or rentals," Monda said, "where I wouldn't have to worry if I was going to be able to park in front of my own house."

Parking issues aside, Monda said second units undermine the character of single-family neighborhoods by creating multifamily rental zones with transients, absentee landlords, increased noise, crowding and lowered home values.

But Kingston, the CAR lobbyist, said local ordinances address these issues. "You're not talking about placing 15 people in a 600-square-foot unit."

Helene Cob purchased her 1,200-square-foot Los Angeles home with a second unit in 1990. The one-bedroom unit, off a detached garage, provided the perfect living space for her then college-age daughter. She now rents the unit to a teacher for $450 a month.

Cob said she believes that even with the lure of extra income, most owners are going to be selective about the person living in their own backyard and that it's not about making money. "It's about meeting the needs of the people."

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