Members of the Foster City Council are deeply frustrated with recent state laws allowing for larger accessory dwelling units in the city and are considering new strategies to ensure their grievances are heard in Sacramento.

Councilmembers expressed their frustrations during a meeting last week as they reluctantly approved on first reading a series of ADU zoning changes to comply with state laws that took effect in January.  

Before the new state laws took effect, ADUs in single-family dwellings in the city could be no larger than 640 square feet with a minimum rear and side setback of five feet. And the minimum rear setback for ADUs attached to the main home was 20 feet.

As of January, state law allows ADUs up to 800 square feet by right with a minimum height of 16 feet and rear and side setback requirements of four feet, whether attached or detached.

Foster City’s zoning rules are being updated to reflect those changes, but councilmembers aren’t happy about it.

“I’m so frustrated with the state telling us how to change our neighborhoods,” said Mayor Catherine Mahanpour during the meeting. “It really bothers me that this could change the look and the feel of family neighborhoods and single-family homes in particular.”

Mahanpour’s colleagues echoed the sentiment.

“I’m deeply concerned about the state taking control and mandating requirements on our planned community,” said Vice Mayor Sanjay Gehani. “Taking our control away seems like a direct threat to our democracy.

“I’m sitting here in front of you today, your elected official, and I have no say regarding ADUs up to 800 square feet,” he continued, “There’s nothing I can do and that’s frustrating.”

Mahanpour, Gehani and Councilman Jon Froomin proposed hiring a lobbyist to amplify their voices in Sacramento.

“This is really an area where I truly believe we need a greater voice in Sacramento,” Froomin said. “We need a lobbyist of some sort whether it’s simply ours or with other cities of similar size and similar issue to let them know these cookie-cutter ideas don’t fit every single community. It’s just not right.”

Gehani feels the latest state laws are especially unfair to Foster City because it has been a “good actor” when it comes to permitting new housing.

“We’re a planned community, we’re in the top 5% in meeting our RHNA numbers across the state,” he said. “We’re a good actor. We’re on an island. We’re not in a transit-rich area.”

While councilmembers were frustrated with recent state laws, the zoning amendments they approved on paper allow for even larger structures. Based on the zoning amendments, detached ADUs can go up to 1,200 square feet or 50% of the primary dwelling, whichever is less.

That standard is based on input from the Planning Commission summarized by Senior Deputy City Attorney Kai Ruess as follows:

“[The Planning Commission] felt larger lots with larger existing primary dwellings could accommodate larger ADUs so having the maximum set higher, but still subject to things like floor area ratio would accomplish sort of a spectrum of sizes based on lots rather than just having a set maximum,” he said.

“So the city has a lot of ADUs of that size,” said Councilman Sam Hindi. “It’s not automatic that a 1,200-square-foot ADU will just be approved.”

The council will vote on second reading the ADU zoning changes at its next meeting.  

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