Opposition to allowing granny flats, or accessory dwelling units, in East Animas City cropped up while the city was putting together its Land Use and Development Code, approved this summer. Since then, the city has received numerous letters in support of the granny flat. City Council, therefore, decided to revisit the issue with a public meeting on Mon., Nov. 17. A meeting on existing ADUs in historic downtown neighborhoods, aka EN-1, takes place tonight, Thurs., Nov. 13  /Photo by Jennaye Derge

Under construction

City continues to tweak ‘grandma apartment’ rules, considers expanding program
by Tracy Chamberlin

Granny flats, alley houses, mother-in-law apartments. That’s what everyone calls them in everyday conversation. What’s written into the regulations of the city’s Land Use and Development Code, however, is the term Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADU.

Both refer to the secondary house, suite or apartment added onto a primary residence or its property.

These units, where in-laws and renters often come to stay, can quickly become the central figures in a controversial and contentious debate. Something that’s true for communities across the country, not just Durango.

With that in mind, city officials separated out the issue of granny flats when they began researching all the topics that would make up the new Land Use and Development Code, adopted this summer by City Council, and began addressing it neighborhood by neighborhood.

This week, the city is hosting two meetings on the issue. The first focuses on two neighborhoods where the granny flat, or accessory dwelling unit, is allowed and legal under the new code. The issue at hand is how to catalogue all the ones that already exist but weren’t properly permitted.

Anyone wanting to weigh in on that discussion or find out about the details is invited to City Hall, 949 E. 2nd Ave., at 5:30 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 13.

The other meeting addresses a third neighborhood – East Animas City.  Starting at 5:30 p.m. Mon., Nov. 17, at City Hall, 949 E. 2nd Ave., residents living in the area east of North Main Avenue can offer feedback on, one, whether or not the units should even be allowed in those areas and, two, how the process could work for registering ones that already exist.

Public Meetings on Accessory Dwelling Units

What: Existing ADUs in Old Durango and “the avenues”
When: Thurs., Nov. 13, 5:30 p.m.
Where: City Hall, 949 E. 2nd Ave.

What: Possibility of ADUs in East Animas City neighborhood
When: Mon., Nov. 17, 5:30 p.m.
Where: City Hall, 949 E. 2nd Ave.

More info.: www.durangogov.org/adus or 375-4850.

During the original public outreach process for the new code, city staff asked residents about allowing the units in each of the five neighborhoods zoned in Durango, from EN-1, or existing neighborhood-1, through EN-5.

Residents in the EN-4 and EN-5 neighborhoods weren’t in favor of the units, said Nicol Killian, planning manager with the City’s Community Development Departments; and, those communities were built after the city’s first Land Use and Development Code was adopted in 1989, at which time granny flats were prohibited.

Opposition also cropped up against allowing them in the EN-3 neighborhoods in East Animas City, but since the updated code was adopted, the city received numerous letters in support of the granny flat. City Council, therefore, decided to revisit the issue starting with Monday’s meeting.

Currently, accessory dwelling units are only allowed in the EN-1 and EN-2 neighborhoods, which cover the areas east of downtown along Third Avenue and ones running parallel to North Main Avenue.

Once those neighborhoods were approved for accessory dwelling units in the new code, city staff began a two-step process. Permitting new units to be built and attempting to catalogue the existing ones. Residents were asked to voluntarily register existing units before the end of the year, but when staff entered some of the older units and began safety inspections, new hiccups surfaced.

“There ended up being a lot more when we started getting into it,” Killian explained.

The first thing the city did was to extend the voluntary registration period through March of next year.

Second, they adjusted the registration process. Originally the cutoff year was 1941, when the first zoning maps sectioned off the city. However, once the process began, city officials found the records from 1941-89 were thin and residents hit them with the burden of proof.

“They wanted us to prove (the unit) was illegal,” Killian said. “We just don’t have the staff for that.”

Also, when the city began to examine properties for health and safety issues, they realized some granny flats built prior to 1989 were far from up to snuff when it came to the modern code. The potential costs for bringing those units up to code were far more than an owner could pay.

“They didn’t have the money … we didn’t have manpower,” Killian explained.

So, change of plan. Now, the year in question is 1989. Records are more complete, the first Land Use and Development Code was in place and permits were clearly required after that date, Killian said.

The cost for permitting and registering depends on the fee schedule in place the year the unit was built.

If it was built after 1989, the fees could be in the $6,000 to $7,000 range, depending on square footage and age. For example, a unit built in 2013 at 600 square feet or less could cost about $7,500.

Any accessory dwelling unit built prior to 1989 is not subject to fees, nor is it required to be permitted and adhere to the requirements of the new Land Use and Development Code. The hitch is that it won’t be permitted if it is not up to code.

Because there would be no health and safety inspection the city would issue a letter of acknowledgement, not a permit. “There will be a difference,” Killian said.

The difference matters particularly if the unit is destroyed. For example, if the property was destroyed by fire could both the home and the granny flat be rebuilt?

“That’s one of our issues,” Killian said. “What does that letter mean?”

Residents are complying, Killian said, with about 78 units registered online. She considers that a good number since many residents are waiting for the registration and enforcement issues to work themselves out before joining in the process.

After months of inspections, discussions and feedback, the city continues to tweak its registration and enforcement process. The city has limited manpower. The public has limited funds. Somewhere in the middle is a way to make it work.

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