Roughly four months ago, West Chester Planning Commission Secretary and local alley expert Thomas Doughtery and I met to discuss the point and principles of accessory dwelling units or ADUS, a common housing addendum – think in-law suites or your old basement apartment – that have been credited by some with taking the edge off the U.S. housing crisis. The meeting was set in anticipation of a new ADU ordinance the Planning Commission had been diligently drafting for the past year or so. As it turned out, the meeting was a bit premature. The wording would go through a few more rounds of fine-tuning – and perhaps, a little bending.
“It’s not everything I wanted but It’s a significant step forward,” said Thomas recently.
Among the changes agreed to was to limit the units to two occupants. This will exempt most families but with a max size of 800 sq ft., they weren’t likely to be a popular option for families anyway. Another change added a parking requirement. This means if you would like to add an ADU to your property you have to be able to show three off-street parking spaces (two for the home, one for the ADU.) For many properties, this will be tough. As parking needs often vary throughout the Borough, it has been suggested a parking study be done to determine the need but so far this idea has not been accepted.
That said there is still plenty to get excited about in the new ordinance especially if you have been discouraged by some of the large apartment complexes going up around town. ADUs are another way to add housing density but in a much more manageable way and one in which the homeowner is in control. “The ordinance is written to codify an age-old idea and practice and actually make it allowable again,” said Planning Commission Chair Jason Birl.
Sounds good, but what exactly is an ADU? According to the draft ordinance, it is a dwelling unit located on the same lot as a single-family home (this could be a stand-alone structure or an attached unit such as a twin or row home) that provides complete independent living facilities.
An ADU can take many different forms from a garage apartment to a stand-alone in-law suite to a basement walkout. Those familiar with the HGTV show “Income Property” may have believed this was already a viable option for justifying a home purchase just outside your budget. However, in much of the U.S., it is not.
“As a residential architect, I have had this conversation too many times over the years with homeowners,” said Jason. “In many cases, [these units] aren’t allowed and homeowners are incredulous they’re not permitted to do what seems like a simple thing- make living spaces for family, or a small apartment to allow them to remain living in their house as they age. The communities that allow ADUs are better off for it and West Chester is finally on the right track in this regard,” he said.
Don’t we already allow these? No, but the Borough does have a Historic Carriage House provision, which essentially is a very narrowly defined ADU ordinance, in which homes with carriage houses were allowed to convert the unused space into apartments rather than destroying the historic buildings. The Borough currently has 112 lots that participate in the program.
Ok, so what are the benefits and downsides of expanding that relatively limited program? According to a case study completed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development on this topic, accessory dwelling units are a cost-effective way to increase a community’s housing supply. Since there are no land costs, the units can be constructed – and subsequently rented – at a lower cost than a new home. They also often do a better job of preserving a neighborhood’s character as they are closely tied to existing structures.
They can also help more new homeowners enter the market by offering a way to offset some mortgage costs.
The downsides to ADUs that I found tend to fall more on the homeowner than the community and included things such as financing the initial construction and navigating local ordinances.
The most common community concerns tend to relate to property values, parking, and traffic. However, there is little real-life evidence to support such fears. Since the introduction of the new density is at a much smaller scale than most development projects – one unit at a time, two people per new unit, in contrast to say, 181 units at once – the effects on traffic levels and parking are generally not felt.
Interesting. So, if this ordinance were to pass, could I add an ADU to my property?
Maybe. As I mentioned before, there is that parking requirement and a few more stipulations you’ll have to consider. First, you have to live on the property full-time. ADUs will not be allowed on rental properties.
You can only add one ADU to your property and it can be no larger than 800 feet (and no taller than 24 feet if it’s detached from the main house). That space should include a bathroom facility, a kitchen space, and contain a single bedroom. If independent from the main property, your ADU must be located in the back of the main property (you can not add an ADU to your front or side yard) and you must provide at least one off-street spot for your future tenants.
“Residents of the ADU shall not be eligible for any on-street parking permits,” the current ordinance reads.
If your ADU is part of your main property, say a basement or attic apartment, it must have a separate entrance that is not part of the front facade of the primary dwelling. (I’m not sure why.)
There are more rules regarding landscaping, window placement, and materials used – but don’t worry, you’ll need to submit your architectural plans along with your building permit application so I am sure they will let you know if you got anything wrong.
Trust, but verify, seems to be the model they are using.
Then assuming you get your new unit successfully built you will also need to obtain a rental license if you plan on renting it. I know it may sound like a lot of red tape but it really is a big step forward for the Borough.
“Are 145 little decisions better for the Borough than one big decision?” Thomas asks me. It’s a good question especially as plans for new developments at Mitch’s, Burger King and Rubensteins hang in the ether.
A public hearing on the new ordinance is being held on Wednesday, July 19 at 6:30 p.m. at Borough Hall.
Published, July 14, 2023
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