Granny Flats in Fire Zones Required by State

City of Santa Barbara Attempts to Limit Size to 800 Square Feet

City Council Ordinance Committee members Oscar Gutierrez, Kristen Sneddon, and Mike Jordan. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file) & Daniel Dreifuss (file)

As far as the state is concerned, every residential property in California can hold a granny flat — even those in high fire zones. On Tuesday, the city’s Ordinance Committee said, “Not so fast,” and agreed with city staff to limit their size in high fire zones, encouraging them at mixed-use properties in urban areas and clarifying the signs to announce a project is in progress.

When the city enacted its urgent granny-flat ordinance to keep the state’s law from taking place too quickly, it opted to require that owners live at any residence applying for an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), as the grannies are officially known. But an amendment to the California law takes effect in December that nullifies the owner-occupancy requirement through 2025. For the 340 ADU builders who live on-site, the question will be one of equity. The committee agreed to amend those agreements to allow the owner to live off-site. By 2025, the city will have a better idea of what the effect has been and can evaluate whether to remove the owner-occupancy requirement permanently or not, Councilmember Kristen Sneddon commented.


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The big question was the foothill fire zones. Planner Rosie Dyste explained that the Legislature attempted to prohibit ADUs in high fire zones, but the law was sidelined despite this season’s record-breaking wildfires. In an attempt to limit the damage for emergency evacuations, the Ordinance Committee recommended sticking with the smaller “special ADU” for fire zones. Those are limited to the existing room size if a converted garage, for instance, or 800 square feet and 16 feet tall if a new detached building; both are required in the state granny flat law. And an ADU and a “junior” ADU could both be built, with the junior being limited to an existing room in the home but with a separate entrance, kitchen, and bath.

The “special” designation applies across the city, not just in fire zones. At multi-unit buildings, as many as two detached ADUs can be built, or they can be as numerous as 25 percent of existing units if converted from locations not meant to be lived in, such as a laundry room. A second category, the “standard” ADU, could be a detached structure of 850-1,200 square feet, depending on lot size, and limited to 17 feet in height, unless built over a garage. These may not be built in the high or extreme fire zones.

Regarding the city’s development signs, Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez thought they should stay. “Some residents on the Westside make a hobby out of checking out the signs and seeing if the builder is abiding by the rules,” he said. He noted that clearer language on the sign would be welcome, and he suggested a QR code could link the sign to the project.

Other state law changes include a 60-day processing time, from the current 120 days. And parking does not have to be replaced if a garage is used for housing.

“The city is just starting to prioritize mixed-use locations,” Councilmember Mike Jordan noted, saying that allowing granny flats was a better solution than city’s other innovation — Average Unit-size Density developments, or AUDs. “AUDs are a bigger shock to the surroundings,” he said, as large as 100 units and many stories tall. “The ADU impact is slight,” Jordan said. “So many people don’t even know that they’re there in the neighborhood.”

From the Ordinance Committee, the issue goes to the City Council in coming weeks.

Correction: The original version of this story erroneously stated the Planning Commission had voted in favor of smaller, or special, ADUs in fire zones; the commissioners had recommended both special and standard ADUs for fire zones.


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