An ordinance to increase the size of accessory dwellings, or “mother-in-law” units, was approved by Douglas County Commissioners with some adjustments Thursday.
The original proposal was to increase the size of accessory dwellings from 800-square-feet to 1,200-square-feet of living area for lots that are a minimum of 1 acre in single family residences and rural agricultural zoning districts.
The second part of the ordinance proposed that accessory buildings, different from accessory dwellings because they do not contain a kitchen, do not need to be compatible aesthetically with the main dwelling.
After much debate between the planning department staff and commissioners, Chairman Doug Johnson suggested that commissioners vote to keep one-acre, single family residences at 800-square-feet and to change 2, 5 and 10-acre residences from 800 to 1,000-square-feet, instead of the proposed 1,200-square-feet.
Douglas County Development Director Mimi Moss said that front desk staff notified supervisors at weekly staff meetings that they saw a pattern of people asking about building accessory dwellings for dependent senior parents or dependent special needs children.
“This ordinance is already part of the 2006 master plan and is consistent with housing needs and trends,” Moss said. “We are not asking for anything new.”
Moss said that only 34 accessory dwellings had been approved in the last eight years because homeowners must meet acreage, utility and spacing criteria or simply can’t afford it.
Opponents of the ordinance spoke during public comment.
David Nelson, a Valley resident since 2003 and a realtor, spoke against the ordinance because it could drive property values down for neighbors.
“Conformity is extremely important,” Nelson said. “It is a disaster for property values in a neighborhood.”
Other opponents claimed that accessory dwellings could turn into rentals, which could lead to more crime, lower property rates, and more “junk.”
Some thought that the size increase was unnecessary.
Jeanne Shizuru said a 1,200-square-foot unit is “transformational” to a neighborhood.
“It goes from being a mother-in-law unit to a single family home,” she said.
Stephanie Weimar said that she raised a family in an 800 square foot home and that it was sufficient and wanted commissioners to vote no.
The only support for public comment came from Doug Ritchie, chief civil deputy for the board of commissioners.
“Right now the code says that you can build up to a 5,000 square foot accessory building with saunas, waterfalls or whatever as long as it doesn’t have a kitchen,” he said.
He said opponents argued against the ordinance because they wanted to preserve the Valley’s rural character and protect its views of the Sierra Nevada but that homeowners were able to build “two or three-story buildings” without kitchens.
Ritchie said accessory dwellings were not just for senior parents who needed assistance but also special needs children.
“A child can be close to his parents without being institutionalized,” he said. “They can experience some independence and still be close to their parents.”
Chairwoman Nancy McDermid voted to pass the ordinance if the number of accessory dwelling requests could be tracked and if support for the increase could be documented in time for the next master plan update.