December 8, 2006


aCivic groups declare war on
accessory dwelling units legislation

It's still in draft form and hasn't a sponsor yet, but leaders of some 'umbrella' civic associations have lined up in opposition to a county ordinance establishing regulations for accessory dwelling units, which is expected to be introduced into County Council soon after the turn of the year.

Fritz Griesinger, of the Pike Creek Valley Civil League, called the proposal "a solution looking for a problem."

Frances West, of the Civil League for New Castle County, questioned why such a measure would be necessary when officials of the land use and community services departments acknowledge that much of what what would be added to the Unified Development Code with reference to accessory dwelling units already is permitted by other parts of the code.

The executive committee of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred reportedly has already approved a resolution opposing in principle any such legislation.

"Calling attention to this by a separate [measure] makes it sound a little more sinister and complicated than what you say it is," West said at the monthly meeting of civic officers with County Executive Christopher Coons and other officials on Dec. 7.

"It looks like a lead-in to 'workforce housing'," Griesinger said. The reference was to incorporating lower-price housing into new or established communities.

Preamble to the draft ordinance refers to "promot[ing] a range of housing stock." There was a reference in a previous version to "add[ing] moderately priced rental units to the housing stock," but that has been removed from the latest draft.

The community services department has been working on producing legislation for several months and has made presentations before some civic groups  seeking comments about what it should contain. Coons objected to a reference at the meeting to "thousands of worker-hours" having been spent on the project. "It's been nowhere near anything like that," he said.

Council president Paul Clark said the intent of the legislation is to make legal practices which already exist and to prevent the necessity for subterfuge to get around some code provisions. "I think there is a lot of support for that," he said.

An 'accessory dwelling unit' is defined in the draft legislation as an addition to or internal modification of a single family detached house which provides living, sleeping, cooking and sanitation facilities separate independent of those in the main structure.

They are commonly referred to by such terms as 'in-law suites', 'granny suites' and the like.

Land use general manager Charles Baker acknowledged that it is now fully legal to build an addition or modify a house to provide for most of those things. "You can even have a kitchenette so long as you don't hook up a stove," he said. A building inspector, he said, more or less has to accept an owner's word that a stoveless space will not get a stove once the addition is approved and would not likely have a reason to re-inspect unless the house is the object of a complaint.

It was obvious in conversation at the meeting that the civic leaders' concern had little to do with what's cooking but with possible future use of such space as a other-than-the-family rental unit. "That could change the character of existing neighborhoods," Griesinger said.

The draft legislation would permit the units to be rented to other than family members, but would require registration under the county's rental code and thus subject them to random or complaint-driven inspection. Moreover, Baker said, "There's no [present] requirement that you live in your single-family home. You can move out and rent it to anybody you want."

The draft legislation provides that the main part of the house or the accessory unit be the primary residence of the owner. If it is enacted, the measure would prohibit more than one accessory unit in a house and require an additional off-street parking space.

An accessory unit could not be a free-standing structure separate from the main residence, but the proposed ordinance would continue to  allow a free-standing 'guest house' on any lot larger than two acres or conversion of a separate structure, such as a garage, into an accessory dwelling unit. The 'guest house' could not be larger than half the total floor area of the main house and would have to meet all setback requirement in the code. Such separate structures are now permitted on three-acre or larger lots.

In an earlier presentation on the subject, Council was told that, based on a survey of experience in 47 jurisdictions with accessory dwelling unit laws, New Castle County could expect about 113 to be permitted annually.

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