After 3 years, Lexington council moves ‘granny flat’ proposal forward with key changes

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After more than three years of debate, the Lexington council inched closer Tuesday to allowing accessory dwelling units in Lexington neighborhoods.

A committee of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted unanimously to move to the full council an ordinance that would allow for accessory dwelling units, sometimes referred to as granny flats. But the council opted to eliminate new detached accessory dwelling units or tiny houses.

Accessory dwelling units that include additions to houses or conversions of existing garages, basements or attics would still be allowed under the proposal.

Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who made the motion to eliminate free-standing accessory dwelling units, said much of the pushback has been against the detached units.

The vote of the council‘s Planning and Public Safety Committee came after a more than four-hour public hearing late Tuesday. The full council will take its first vote on the ordinance at a work session on Oct. 12. The proposed changes also include reviewing the program after 12 months.

Accessory units provide housing flexibility

Chris Woodall, director of long-range planning, told the council committee that accessory dwelling units “provide flexibility” for housing.

Many older people want to “age in place,” Woodall said. “Nursing homes and assisted living are very costly for people on a fixed income. “

Woodall said accessory dwelling units could also allow homeowners to increase the value of their homes.

The idea for accessory dwelling units came from the city’s senior services commission more than three years ago, Woodall said.

In October 2019, the Urban County Planning Commission voted unanimously to change city zoning ordinances to allow accessory dwelling units with some substantial limits after hearing concerns from residents.

The proposal would allow one accessory dwelling unit per lot. The maximum allowed size for an attached unit would be 800 square feet, in most cases. In some cases, depending on the size of the house, the maximum could be 625 square feet.

On Tuesday, the council tweaked the requirements to allow a basement conversion to be the same footprint as the house even if the size exceeds the 800-square-foot maximum.

In addition, the rules would:

  • Require an owner to live in the home or the accessory dwelling unit.

  • Force an owner to get a conditional use permit if the accessory dwelling unit was to be used as a short-term rental — such as an Airbnb.

  • Limit the number of people in an accessory dwelling unit to two adults and any related children.

  • Require owners to meet with planning staff prior to building an accessory dwelling unit.

Based on other cities that allow accessory dwelling units, the city’s planning staff estimates between 19 and 190 units will be built.

More housing for seniors? Or headaches for neighborhoods?

During Tuesday’s meeting, more than 30 people spoke in favor and against the ordinance.

Those who support the changes said the accessory dwelling units would allow for many in the aging and disability community to remain close to family members and out of full-time, institutionalized care. It could also provide another housing option as Lexington faces an affordable housing crisis.

Mary Schmidt, a member of the city’s senior services commission, said accessory dwelling units would create a new housing option for the older population.

“To accommodate growth, we have to change the way we think about housing,” Schmidt said. “ADUs add housing to existing neighborhoods.”

Marie Allison built an accessory dwelling unit in 1996 for her disabled son but had to jump through multiple hoops. “I have friends that want to build one too but it shouldn’t be so difficult,” Allison said.

Opponents questioned how the city will oversee and police accessory dwelling units, ensuring the program isn’t abused.

Jessica Winters, a lawyer representing 12 downtown neighborhood associations, said those neighborhoods oppose accessory dwelling units.

“ADUs become short-term rentals and parking problems,” Winters said of other cities’ experiences with accessory dwelling units. Winters also said the city needs a rental registration system before it allows accessory dwelling units.

“Zoning enforcement in Lexington is virtually nonexistent,” Winters said.

Kate Savage fought for stiffer requirements on the number of unrelated people living in apartments in her neighborhood near the University of Kentucky more than a decade ago.

The changes helped but the only way to enforce them was for residents to complain. The same would be true with accessory dwelling units, she said.

“I don’t want to be a snitch,” Savage said.

Others were concerned about parking — there is no minimum parking requirement — and whether the city’s sewer system could handle additional sewage. Others said many homeowner associations now restrict all accessory buildings through deed restrictions. Therefore, many of the units would end up in the city’s older neighborhoods close to downtown.

Scott Diamond said in Portland, Ore., only 15 percent of accessory dwelling units are for older people or people with disabled relatives. The remainder are rental units.

Diamond said he isn’t opposed to using accessory dwelling units for seniors and disabled adults but he does not want to see mini-hotels popping up in neighborhoods.

Jim Duncan, the city’s planning manager, said the ordinance would help the city crack down on illegal accessory dwelling units. There will also be deed restrictions on properties with the units to tell potential buyers about all of the rules, including owner-occupancy and the conditional use permit for short-term rentals.

Chris Taylor, also with the city’s planning department, said building permits for accessory dwelling units would create a registry. Because there will likely be few units built, the city’s sanitary sewers won’t be affected, Taylor said.

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