An ADU built in Berkeley for the homeowner’s mother. Photo: New Avenue Homes

Berkeley City Council on Tuesday unanimously adopted the first reading of an ordinance amendment to streamline further the permitting process for accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The California legislature in January 2017 amended state laws, requiring cities to make it easier to build ADUs – often termed granny flats, in-law units or cottages.

Last year, the City Council amended Berkeley’s ADU ordinance to comply with state law, but this week’s action on recommendations from the city’s planning department should ease the process further. The department’s proposal followed three public meetings, including a noticed public hearing, of the Planning Commission to discuss the modifications. The intent of the ADU laws – from the state and the city – is to fast track “by right” ADUs which meet the simple, set standards.

The 2017 changes have already had an impact. In 2016, Berkeley permitted 14 ADUs. Last year, that number more than quadrupled to 57.

In a rarity for the City Council, both public comment and council members were unanimous in easing the process for ADUs in Berkeley. The new ordinance allows the ADU to be up to 850 sq. ft. (up from 750 sq. ft. previously) and clarifies a number of the design guidelines.

“We need to get on this boat,” said Councilwoman Kate Harrison.

“These ADUs are a godsend,” said Councilman Ben Bartlett. “I’d like us to default to leadership on this.”

Architect Tyler Kobick said his practice is currently working on six ADU projects in Berkeley and eight in Oakland. Kobick said they were fielding numerous calls from homeowners interested in ADUs.

Public comment during City Council meetings is usually a parade of statements with zero interaction from council members. On Tuesday, however, Mayor Jesse Arreguín quizzed Kobick and other speakers after their allotted one minute to get further details.

In response to the mayor’s questions, Kobick said Oakland approvals generally were swifter than in Berkeley.

“Berkeley is farming out its planning check,” Kobick said, citing one project that took five months to get approval. “We can move it through Oakland in six weeks.”

Kobick also said the school district’s developer fees in Berkeley is a “big deal” compared to Oakland, and the two stories allowed in Oakland makes many projects viable that don’t pencil out in Berkeley. Berkeley currently restricts ADUs to a maximum height of 14 feet (extendable to 18 feet with an administrative use permit).

Arreguín also sought further information from Erick Mikiten, another Berkeley architect and a member of the state’s Building Standards Commission.

“We’re building granny flats and they need to actually work for granny,” Mikiten said.

Mikiten said that Berkeley’s laws should incentivize accessibility. Rather than more restrictions, Mikiten said, the law could allow more height or two ADU units on a lot in return for accessibility.

Council members expressed views that were open to both increased heights and Mikiten’s ideas for accessibility incentives. Harrison said she was particularly interested in making it easier to convert or replace garages into ADUs (garages do not currently qualify for the ADU fast track because they are “non-conforming” buildings). Arreguín said he wanted to look at an 18-foot height limit, and removing the requirement for owner occupiers on the site (either in the main dwelling or the ADU). He said that was “low hanging fruit.” The mayor was also open to looking into allowing two ADUs per parcel.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she was concerned about two-bedroom ADUs because “when you have two bedrooms you’re sometimes talking about two cars.” By state law, parking cannot be a requirement for ADUs unless a street is less than 26 feet wide (which applies in much of Berkeley’s hills). Councilwoman Sophie Hahn expressed concern that higher height limits might block some neighbors’ views.

But Arreguín and other council members said it was important to move forward with the proposal, rather than delay it to tinker with modifications that would need further study. The reading was passed unanimously.

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...