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City-State Clash Looms Over ‘Granny Flats’ Bill

Times Staff Writer

Authors of a new state law designed to ease California’s housing crisis by making it easier to build “granny flats” next to existing homes are pushing a new bill they say is needed because dozens of affluent cities have undermined the original law.

An Assembly committee is set to begin hearings Wednesday on whether the second law is needed to force city officials from Monterey to Thousand Oaks to abide by the 2002 statute intended to streamline approval of so-called in-law units or granny flats.

The original law, which went into effect July 1, requires local agencies to routinely approve applications for second dwellings without public hearings if the new structures meet local guidelines. But because some local governments enacted guidelines so stringent they essentially banned second dwellings, backers say a new bill is needed to impose reasonable standards statewide.

For instance, the new bill would set a minimum size of 600 square feet for second dwellings, open occupancy to non-family members and allow the units to be rented. It would prohibit localities from setting unreasonable parking requirements and from banning the extra dwellings altogether. It would also allow second units in all residential zones, including those reserved for single family homes -- a controversial provision critics predicted would create a furor among homeowners.

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“We’re in a housing crisis in California,” said Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), author of the new bill, AB 2702. “And no one can deny that second units are an essential part of the state’s affordable housing strategy.”

But a spokesman for the League of California Cities, a key opponent, said both measures represented an unjustified state grab of local authority that would shut out the public while potentially overcrowding neighborhoods and ruining their character.

“These laws run counter to the whole concept of open government,” said Daniel Carrigg, a lobbyist for the cities. “It’s one-size-fits-all government. And for Sacramento to dictate standards to 478 cities and 58 counties is really going to set up a flash point.”

Backers of the granny flat laws acknowledge that many cities and counties, including the city of Los Angeles, have followed the intent of the original law. But many have not, said Ron Kingston, lobbyist for the California Assn. of Realtors, cosponsor of the granny flat legislation.

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“In some communities, city fathers have thrown up as many walls as possible to make sure second units won’t be built,” he said. “Some people are really scared of the unknown.”

Monterey has banned new second units altogether, arguing that a long-standing local prohibition exempts it from the new law. That coastal city tried granny flats in the 1980s, said City Atty. William Conners, and “complaints came out of every neighborhood that had one -- too much parking, too much trash, too much noise.”

Carmel also banned new second units except for use by low-income residents or people who are physically handicapped. Davis limited new second dwellings to a maximum of 325 square feet without a special permit. In unincorporated Montecito, an exclusive enclave near Santa Barbara, a lot must measure at least five acres for a detached second dwelling to be built. Laguna Beach requires two new parking spaces for each extra dwelling, a tough standard enforced in many communities.

Palos Verdes Estates requires at least three enclosed parking spaces per lot with a second unit, and approval by both the city and the Palos Verdes Homes Assn. Art Jury. The art jury, a private organization that enforces deed restrictions, would evaluate the aesthetic value of the project and whether it reflected the uncrowded nature of the city.

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And in leafy Thousand Oaks, the wealthiest city in affluent Ventura County, the City Council imposed standards assuring that few second dwellings would be built. It required two additional parking spaces per extra unit and limited the dwelling’s size to 10% of the living space of the existing home. Thus, a 2,200-square-foot house could have only a 220-square-foot granny flat. And in no case could the unit’s size exceed 499 square feet.

“We don’t want to end up being a city of duplexes,” Councilman Edward L. Masry said. “If everybody put a granny flat on their property, we’d end up with more people and more smog and more of every problem.”

Masry, an attorney, said Sacramento should stay out of Thousand Oaks’ business.

“What’s good for Thousand Oaks may not be good for Compton and vice versa,” he said. “They’re trying to find a cure-all for all cities, and I don’t think that’s sensible.”

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Kingston said of the Thousands Oaks 10% guideline: “That’s smaller than a prison cell. So you’ll probably never have a second unit there.”

Like many cities, Los Angeles reacted to the original granny flat bill by amending an existing policy that generally allowed extra dwellings.

Los Angeles permits second units in all residential zones, including single family. But lot sizes must be 50% larger than standard to accommodate the unit, which can be no larger than 640 square feet. And one extra parking space must be provided.

“I suppose we’re somewhere in the middle on this,” said Jane Blumenfeld, principal city planner.

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But Los Angeles may be less supportive of the new push for mandatory state standards, she said. “In some places, second units could be a very good way to reduce the housing crisis,” she said. “But it’s very difficult to write laws that apply effectively to Boyle Heights and Northridge and Watts and Encino.”

Steinberg’s new bill is set to be heard by two policy committees -- local government and housing -- in the next two weeks, so its ride to the Assembly floor may be unusually rough.

The assemblyman said he expected a fight, but would not back off because many local cities had done little to provide their fair share of affordable housing.

“The state will gladly step aside when the cities as a whole begin demonstrating an aggressive commitment to affordable housing,” he said. “A good second-unit policy, especially in affluent communities, allows people of different socio-economic backgrounds to live together, and that’s a good thing.”

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But Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher (R-Brea), a member of the Local Government Committee that will consider Steinberg’s bill this week, said she voted against the original second-unit law in 2002 because she considered city housing regulations a local matter.

“I support workforce housing,” said Daucher, former mayor of Brea. “But if it’s imposed on locals, I think it’s doomed for failure. If this happened to you, you and your neighbors would revolt. It’s all about how you get things done.”

Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), chairman of the Housing and Community Development Committee, said the new bill was probably needed to prevent cities from unreasonably limiting the size of granny flats. But he is concerned that it goes too far by requiring second units in all types of residential neighborhoods, including those zoned R-1 that allow only one house per lot.

“If there are real examples of cities making outrageous kinds of restrictions, then we should deal with it,” Lowenthal said. “But this bill eliminates the R-1 zone, and that’s a major change in the law that goes much too far.”

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