City proposes allowing Accessory Dwelling Units in more Lawrence neighborhoods

photo by: Douglas County GIS

This aerial photo from 2018 shows an area of East Lawrence along 12th Street, at middle, from Rhode Island Street, at left, to Delaware Street, at right.

Another building option could be opened up to hundreds of homeowners in eastern Lawrence, but some residents in those neighborhoods say the new option could be detrimental.

As part of its meeting Wednesday, the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission initiated a code change that would allow Accessory Dwelling Units, or smaller living quarters built on the same lot as a primary residence, in more neighborhoods. City Planner Sandy Day told the Journal-World that the code change would now be researched and developed further by city planners and that a draft code amendment would come back to the Planning Commission for review.

As it is the very beginning of the process, Day said staff would continue to address concerns and comments from residents.

“Whatever comments people have, we want to hear those as we work through this to try to address those comments,” Day said. “There absolutely will be opportunities for the public to engage in the process, and we look forward to having those conversations.”

The proposed code change is the first to come out of Plan 2040, the new comprehensive plan for the city and Douglas County. Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, are currently allowed only on larger residential single-family lots, those that are 7,000 square feet or more. Plan 2040 calls for allowing ADUs on smaller lots as well. A city staff memo to the Planning Commission states that the ADU is a way to offer housing to a family member or affordable housing options to others while maintaining the single-family look and feel of a neighborhood.

“This type of housing can encourage and help sustain owner occupied housing in residential neighborhoods and provide an affordable housing option within the community,” the memo states.

However, some disagreed. In a letter to the commission, East Lawrence resident Phil Collison said that instead of changing the code to allow ADUs on smaller lots, he’d rather see the city offer an incentive to increase density in neighborhoods that have larger lots. Collison wrote that the city should work to increase density all over the city rather than only in the most vulnerable neighborhoods.

“I believe allowing ADUs in RS5 districts would create even more real estate speculation and exploitation that would further exacerbate the gentrification and population turnover within our City’s oldest neighborhoods and would do little to lower housing costs,” Collison wrote.

The city’s RS5 zoning district is made up of lots from 5,000 to 7,000 square feet. Nearly all such lots are in older neighborhoods east of Iowa Street, according to city maps. Neighborhoods that have a significant amount of RS5 lots include East Lawrence, Old West Lawrence, Centennial, Barker and Brook Creek.

Regarding some of the concerns voiced to the commission, Day noted that the ADU allowance in RS5 would not be carte blanche and that property owners would have to meet certain size, parking, occupancy and other standards. Such standards already exist in city code for ADUs, but Day said there could potentially be different standards for ADUs on RS5 lots.

A key feature of the current code regarding ADUs is that the property owner must occupy one structure, either the primary house or the ADU. Therefore, landlords cannot build or have an ADU unless they also live on the property. In addition, the area of the ADU cannot exceed one-third the size of the primary residence or 960 square feet, whichever is less. Lots with ADUs are allowed to have one occupant more than the standard residential occupancy limit, which is three unrelated people, and additional parking must also be available.

Whether to allow ADUs on smaller lots is not a new issue at City Hall. When the city created the ADU code in 2006, Day said that it originally included RS5 lots but they were removed as a compromise. The city initiated a similar code change in 2013, but it was unsuccessful after some residents voiced concerns.

The code change that would allow ADUs in RS5 is different from the density bonus that the City Commission approved in October. That change allows two houses to be built on one lot as long as both homes are affordable. The houses, which can be owned separately, must also meet certain requirements.

Once planners have completed research and developed a draft of the code amendment to allow ADUs in RS5 zoning district, it will go to the Planning Commission for a public hearing. The Planning Commission will thereafter make a recommendation regarding the draft amendment, which will be sent to the City Commission for consideration.

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