City officials will soon begin discussing proposal to allow accessory dwelling units in more Lawrence neighborhoods

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A home with an Accessory Dwelling Unit near the corner of 7th and Connecticut Streets is pictured on Jan. 26, 2021.

City planners are moving forward with drafting a code change that would allow homeowners to build garage apartments and other smaller living quarters in all neighborhoods.

The city will soon begin taking public input regarding the details of the code amendment, and it is expected to go to the Lawrence-Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Commission for consideration this summer. The local comprehensive plan as well as an affordable housing plan have called for expanding the areas where such living quarters, known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs, can be built, and city planner Sandy Day said the units can be used for a variety of purposes.

“Although it is a technique that is identified for affordable housing, there are so many more reasons why accessory dwellings units would be desirable to different people,” Day said.

ADUs, which are smaller living quarters typically built behind a single-family home, are sometimes referred to as granny flats or mother-in-law units. In addition to being used to provide housing for an older family member, Day said other common uses are rental housing, guest housing, or living quarters for an adult child. The City Commission also voted in October to allow ADUs to be used as short-term rentals, offered for short stays on sites such as Airbnb, as long as the person operating the rental lives in one of the dwellings on the property.

In all cases, Day said it’s important to note that the city’s current code requires the property owner to live in either the primary residence or the ADU. She said she did not envision that piece changing if ADUs were allowed in more neighborhoods.

Currently, ADUs can only be built on lots that are 7,000 square feet or more in area; the proposed code change would allow ADUs to be built on smaller lots. Specifically, the code amendment would allow ADUs to also be built on RS5 lots, or those ranging 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 number of RS5 lots include East Lawrence, Old West Lawrence, Centennial, Barker and Brook Creek.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A home with an Accessory Dwelling Unit near the corner of 12th and Connecticut Streets is pictured on Jan. 26, 2021.

The Planning Commission initiated the amendment about a year ago as part of the implementation of the county’s most recent comprehensive plan, Plan 2040. Local leaders approved Plan 2040 in 2019. The plan calls for expanding opportunities to create ADUs in all residential zoning districts while maintaining historic patterns and styles.

The affordable housing toolkit includes various strategies for improving access to affordable housing and was approved by the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Board in 2018 and updated in 2019. The toolkit states that in addition to providing supportive housing options, ADUs can be rented out as a way for homeowners to earn additional income and make it more affordable for them to remain in or maintain their home.

Other key requirements in the existing code limit the size and total occupancy of the lot that contains the ADU. 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.

Similar proposals to expand the ability to build ADUs have been attempted in the past and raised concerns from some neighbors, particularly about how increased density would affect neighborhoods. Noting previous concerns, Day said that upcoming community input would help inform the details of the code change.

“We want to go through this community engagement piece and get feedback from the community and people that are interested in or concerned about the use as we develop what that text amendment is going to look like,” Day said.

Day said additional restrictions or requirements for ADUs on RS5 lots would be considered as public input was gathered. That includes whether the ability to build an ADU on the smaller lots would be a use by right or one that would require the homeowner to apply for a special use permit. Special use permits must be considered by the Planning Commission and City Commission and are also subject to protest petitions from nearby neighbors. If a valid protest petition is filed, it takes four of the five city commissioners to approve the permit instead of the usual simple majority.

Day said the city would announce public input opportunities, such as surveys and meetings, in coming weeks. She said the code change was expected to go to the Planning Commission for consideration in June or July and would also be reviewed by the Affordable Housing Advisory Board. Recommendations from those bodies would then go to the City Commission for ultimate consideration.


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