Relaxed Requirements for ADU’s: An Update

Effective January 1, 2017, local laws regarding Secondary Dwelling Units were superseded. State law now mandates that local jurisdictions ease restrictions and barriers to the permitting and use of what are now referred to as Accessory Dwelling Units (“ADUs”).

ADUs are granny units, in-law units or other accessory structures with independent living facilities (i.e., kitchen and bathroom) and separate entrance.  They are allowed on lots with existing single-family dwellings in single or multi-family residential zones. The state law promotes ADUs by eliminating certain obstacles to construction that many local jurisdictions require to have a second unit on your property, including, but not limited to:

  • An ADU can be attached or detached from the primary residence;
  • An ADU cannot be required to have a clear passageway to the street;
  • Attached ADUs can be up to fifty percent (50%) of existing living area with a maximum floor area of 1,200 square feet.  Detached units are only subject to the 1,200 square foot maximum;
  • Parking requirements are reduced or eliminated;
  • Utility connection requirements and fees for certain units are reduced or eliminated;
  • Applications for ADUs within existing residences or accessory structures must be considered ministerially without the need for any discretionary hearing and within 120 days of submittal.
  • The state mandate allows local jurisdictions to require owner occupancy of either the ADU or primary residence to require rental terms longer than 30 days. Also, if your property is within a Coastal Zone, any ADU will still be subject to Coastal Act permitting requirements and regulations.

Most local jurisdictions within the state have either implemented or are in process of implementing the January mandate into local law.

In the case of Santa Cruz County, that jurisdiction was in the midst of updating its ADU ordinance when the state mandate was passed and thus was able to implement the mandate relatively quickly, in the spring of this year. Key changes include:

  • For all permit applications a ministerial process, rather than a public hearing process, now approves new ADUs. This means that a homeowner interested in building an ADU, who has met all of the County requirements and submitted site plans, should have a reasonable expectation of certainty that their application will be approved.
  • Any application submitted must be approved or denied within 120 days.
  • The County can no longer deny an ADU permit based upon a lack of available parking, and cannot require additional parking as a condition of approval.
  • New ADUs do not require a sprinkler system if the main dwelling does not have a sprinkler system.
  • Special districts (such as water or fire districts) can no longer require that homeowners purchase a second water meter to build an ADU. However, due to ambiguity in the wording of the state mandate, this change is apparently being challenged in court.
  • ADUs can now be built on any lot that allows for a single family home, regardless of size or zoning.
  • ADUs built on top of existing structures, such as a garage, do not require a public hearing and are now are subject to the same ministerial approval process.
  • Rear setbacks have been reduced to a maximum of 5 feet for ADUs built on top of existing structures.
  • Additional sewer system requirements cannot be imposed on rural parcels of less than one acre that already have a single family home, unless a County Health Officer rules that it would have significant impacts on local water quality.

For areas outside of California Coastal Zone jurisdiction the above mandates are now in effect and applicable to ADU permit processing.

However, for areas within the Coastal Zone, implementation is subject to the approval of the California Coastal Commission. Indication from County staff is that the County hopes to have the item assigned to the Commission’s September agenda where, because it brings local ordinance into alignment with state law, it should be expected obtain approval.

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