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Building accessory dwellings in Montgomery County can be easier and more predictable

Citing increased housing costs, Montgomery County planners want to make it easier for homeowners to add accessory apartments or "granny flats" to their property and rent them out. While the new policy is a step in the right direction, balancing neighbors' concerns with the need to provide more housing in high-demand areas will be a challenge.

Accessory apartment over garage in Seattle. Photo by studio-d on Flickr.

Last week, the Planning Board approved a set of changes to the current policy, which the County Council will review this fall. Today, homeowners who want to build an accessory dwelling have to get a special exception from the county's Board of Appeals, which requires a public hearing.

The new policy would allow accessory units in most of the county's single-family zones. Homeowners wouldn't need a hearing, but they'd still need to get approval from building officials to create an apartment, register the unit with the Department of Housing and Community Affairs, apply for a rental license, and renew the license each year.

Planners say allowing accessory apartments will help financially strapped homeowners cover their mortgages while providing additional housing choices for renters, particularly young adults, who are priced out of many MoCo neighborhoods. Accessory dwellings are already allowed "by right" in a variety of communities, from cities like Portland to suburban Lexington, Massachusetts to rural Fauquier County, Virginia.

Opponents fear "devastation"

Super-Addition, Nora Drive
Neighbors fear loosening restrictions will lead to more oversized additions like this one in White Oak. Photo by the author.

However, not everyone's on board. WeAreMoCo, a newly-created citizens' group, argues that not requiring a public hearing is undemocratic, while angry residents packed a meeting about the proposed change in May, claiming that it would threaten the character of single-family neighborhoods. In an e-mail to the Planning Board, Silver Spring resident Alice Gilson wrote that accessory apartments would "devastate our area" and eventually "lead to middle class flight."

Some opponents argue that allowing accessory units is a bad idea because the county already can't stop every illegal unit that exists. Many property owners do indeed choose to ignore the application process and rent out apartments without permission, and unknown to the county. Often, these units are poorly built or overcrowded, putting tenants in danger.

Others exist in a sort of legal limbo: the owner may get approval to build an addition with a bathroom but not a full kitchen, exempting them from the permitting process for apartments even as they rent the space out as one. Even legal units can earn the ire of neighbors for being oversized or unattractive, like this this 1,500 square foot "addition" to a house in White Oak.

On the other hand, how could you blame someone for building an illegal unit? The current system forces homeowners to defend their financial or household situation to wary neighbors, reducing the incentive to take the legal route. Residents may not want accessory apartments in their neighborhoods, but they probably prefer legal, vetted units to illegal ones with no regulation at all.

How can we ensure the creation of safe, context-sensitive accessory apartments? We need to streamline the approval process, making it less intimidating to property owners. But we also need to make the guidelines for what they can and cannot build clear and easy to follow, letting neighbors know what to expect when one gets built on their block.

What county planners propose

Kent Square at Selby, Kentlands
This accessory apartment in Kentlands (over the garage) is located on a 4,300 square foot lot, smaller than would be allowed elsewhere in Montgomery County under the new regulations. Photo by the author.

The proposed policy reduces the legal process required to build an accessory apartment, but it's somewhat more restrictive than the current regulations regarding the size, number, and location of units throughout the county.

Today, homeowners can apply to build a unit as large as 2,500 square feet, but the new proposal caps unit size at either 50% of the main house, 800 square feet or 1,200 square feet, depending on the size of the house or the lot. The new rules also specify that a house with an accessory apartment has to be at least 300 to 500 feet away from another house with one in order to prevent the "overconcentration" of units. There's also a limit of 3 residents per accessory unit, which didn't exist before.

So-called "backyard cottages," accessory dwellings in a separate structure from the main house, were only allowed on lots larger than 2 acres today. Planners were going to allow them on most lots in an earlier draft of the new rules, but they now suggest allowing backyard cottages only in rural zones with lots larger than one acre.

They also aren't considering giving amnesty to existing unlawful apartments. Those who have them would have to apply for a permit just like everyone else.

The new rules won't result in a flood of new apartments, as they would include a cap of 2000 accessory dwellings countywide. Today, there are just 380 legal accessory apartments and 548 "registered living units," built for relatives or household employees who live there rent-free. Planners estimate that 0.2 to 0.5 new accessory dwellings per 1000 homes will be added annually. With 163,000 owner-occupied single-family homes in the county, that comes out to between 30 and 80 new units each year, compared to 10 today.

A cap on accessory apartments might assuage the fears of residents who oppose changing the policy. But for those who could benefit from this new source of housing, the new policy doesn't do enough.

How could the rules be better?

location of accessory apartments
Most existing accessory apartments are located downcounty. Image from the Montgomery County Planning Department.

The proposed regulations make it difficult to build accessory dwellings in the areas where they'll have the most impact, which hurts homeowners and renters. However, they should also offer more guidance as to how units are designed, addressing neighbors' concerns about privacy, crowding and aesthetics.

Potential accessory apartment dwellers may want to locate in desirable downcounty communities like Bethesda, Silver Spring and Takoma Park, where housing is often more expensive but close to jobs, shopping and public transit. Not surprisingly, most of the county's existing accessory dwellings are in these places. Encouraging more of them here would put these areas within reach of more homeowners and renters and ideally give them shorter commutes, reducing traffic congestion.

However, the proposed policy limits the number of units that can be created in these areas, by allowing only 2000 units in the entire county and requiring that they're at least 300 feet apart. And because there aren't any one-acre lots in these neighborhoods, the new policy won't allow backyard cottages there, either.

Why should it be easier to build an accessory apartment on an acre in Potomac, far from jobs or transit, than in a neighborhood like Woodside Park in Silver Spring, where homes sit on generous 1/3-acre lots less than a mile from the Metro? They already exist on much smaller lots in neighborhoods like Kentlands in Gaithersburg, which isn't under the jurisdiction of the county's planning department.

Privacy in backyard cottages
Seattle's Backyard Cottages Guide shows homeowners how to site an accessory dwelling on their property.

Opponents of the new policy might say that accessory dwellings will harm neighborhoods like Woodside Park, but clear, properly enforced guidelines can ensure that new units respect the existing context. Many places that allow accessory apartments offer clear directions on what homeowners can or cannot do. Vancouver, Canada has a "Laneway Housing How-to Guide," which provides examples of accessory units that have already been built. Seattle has a 54-page guide to building backyard cottages, including sample layouts and directions on how to provide parking or maximize privacy. And Portland walks homeowners through the approval process, ensuring that their unit meets all regulations before they apply.

These guidelines should be made with public input so neighbors can help set the rules, rather than fight them in a public hearing. As a result, homeowners get a template they can follow, saving them time and hassle; neighbors know what kinds of additions to expect in their community; and tenants get safe, functional, and attractive places to live.

Accessory apartments give residents freedom

Opponents say that accessory apartments will hurt their single-family neighborhoods. But as Washington Post columnist Roger K. Lewis points out, many of Montgomery County's single-family homes were built for large families. But as households shrink, many of these homes hold just one or two people today. A retired couple living in a four-bedroom house and carving out an apartment for their grandkids or an unrelated tenant isn't "changing" the neighborhood, but bringing it back to the occupancy level it was built for.

Let's face it: Montgomery County is an expensive place to live, and many households are struggling to make ends meet. Making it easier to build accessory dwelling units gives both homeowners and renters the freedom to live where they want and within their means. The county's current policy doesn't prevent accessory apartments from being built, but it does ensure that the creation of more illegal, unsafe, and unattractive apartments. That's a status quo our residents and our neighborhoods can't afford to keep.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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The idea that this will lead to middle-class flight has it backwards. Allowing accessory apartments by right will help make Montgomery County houses affordable for the middle class.

Houses in many parts of Montgomery are too expensive to buy on a middle-class income alone. Renting out an accessory apartment makes a big house more affordable. But as long as homebuyers face uncertainty as to whether they will get a permit, banks will not count the rental income in deciding whether the buyer is qualified for a mortgage.

In other parts of the county, middle-class homeowners whose incomes have declined are being driven out by foreclosure. Renting out an apartment can save a home. But people fighting off foreclosure are in no position to go through a lengthy and expensive public hearing process -- they need automatic approval.

by Ben Ross on Jun 27, 2012 1:05 pm • linkreport

The rules seem rather arbitrary and burdensome. Especially the cap, and the 300-500 separation clauses will lead to weird situations where people can not build because their 5th door neighbor in the next cul-de-sac already has one. This is very unfair.

by Jasper on Jun 27, 2012 1:31 pm • linkreport

nice piece, good list of resources. I agree with Jasper that the rules seem arbitrary, then again, it's MoCo so I am ok with that, since I live in DC.

I do plan to do a not dissimilar piece wrt the ADU issue in DC.

In association with the forthcoming code revision proposal in DC, I hope to pull off organizing an open house of a number of alley communities in SE DC as well as some carriage houses here and there in NE and NW, as an event in the fall, to promote better regulations, and to emphasize the point that ADUs are something good, not something bad.

by Richard Layman on Jun 27, 2012 4:02 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: The specificity of the rules is better than the current situation which is a general statement towards not undue density.

by Kate on Jun 27, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

I wanted to recommend a book that (despite this not being at all its goal) really drove home the importance of accessory dwellings. It's called Next Stop and is about a family with an autistic teenager they're helping get ready for independence. They live in the DC area (Arlington, I'm guessing from the book) and teaching the son to ride the metro is huge for his freedom, finding work, etc. They talk about the toll living with him places on their marriage and it made me realize how awesome it would be if they could build a little house in their back yard, buy a place with an apartment over the garage, etc. I don't know why they didn't (it's not in the book) but the easier it is for homeowners in Arlington, MoCo, etc. to build such dwellings, the easier it would be for families like the Finlands to move into them.

by sb on Jun 27, 2012 6:03 pm • linkreport

The current situation with accessory apartments in MoCo has become so knotted, it will take time and focused effort to untangle and resolve. It remains to be seen if Ike and the County Council will dedicate resources to figuring out a safe, fair and complete set of rules. Yes, accessory apartments are great for generating income from one's property for whatever reason.

Most accessory apartments will work out fine. But the County has to protect against the "worst case" scenarios which most communities won't see but some communities are inundated with. These include all the illegal, unsafe and maybe discriminatory behavior of homeowners toward tenants (see Aspen Hill comments in WashPost Real Estate article a few weeks ago).

If homeowners think the current process through Board of Appeals is long and cumbersome, how will the County guarantee that a process led by understaffed DHCA will be any better? One of the major impediments to declaring an accessory apartment is the cost of building to code. It's the $thousands in renovation costs (20 minute doors, windows that allow someone to escape from a basement during a fire, bedrooms of a certain size per inhabitant, wiring, etc) that deter compliance. How will the County deal with the continued code enforcement problem?

A 2004 report by Planning Staff reviewed 7 regions that had eased accessory apartment rules. There was no difference in license applications with eased rules.

The County needs to spend a little more time figuring out what exactly is wrong with all aspects of the accessory apartments problem before tossing this hot potato from Bd of Appeals to DHCA.

by jmc on Jun 27, 2012 9:20 pm • linkreport

Woody Brosnan wrote,

As a civic leader in Montgomery County I have been trying to bridge the gap on this issue so we can have change without alarming residents. I proposed the cap, which is pegged to roughly 1 per cent of the county's stock of single-family homes, because I believe it will allow for an orderly growth of the marketplace and an orderly growth in the budget for housing inspectors. The cap can always be raised if the demand grows. I was gratified that the Planning Board adopted the cap and I hope housing advocates would support the cap as a reasonable first step toward making it easier for homeowners to build accessory apartments.

by Woody Brosnan on Jul 8, 2012 11:56 am • linkreport

Jasper said all I could say about it. I just realized the County may have decided I can't build an apartment based on another person's choices several homes away. That's ridiculous. Many of these apartments aren't rentals, but mother-in-law additions, etc.

by elnigma on Jul 3, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

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