The tension between local policy and state law with respect to accessory dwelling unit projects is causing consternation in Redwood City.
Two-story ADUs over detached garages in particular have long been a hot button issue in the city: neighbors feel structures of that size negatively impact their privacy and neighborhood character while applicants feel restricted and at times demonized for building within the legal limit and contributing to the city’s housing stock at a time when units are scarce.
These controversies have taken an emotional toll on all involved and left neighbors, who in some cases were once friends, not speaking with one another.
While the projects are the source of the controversy, residents on both sides of the issue have been frustrated with the process for both permitting and also appealing ADUs in the city.
Much of that frustration centers on the issue of discretionary versus ministerial review of projects. Ministerial review essentially means box checking to see if a project meets objective development standards while discretionary review is more subjective in nature.
Since 2017, state law requires ministerial review of ADU projects, which is at odds with some of the city’s policies. Some residents are learning that the hard way.
Earlier this month, the Planning Commission considered an appeal of a two-story ADU at 230 Iris St. after the project was approved by the zoning administrator Aug. 20 because it met all applicable development standards, according to a staff report.
The plans, submitted by husband-and-wife Michael Guerrina and Anna Skordina, are for a 667-square-foot ADU over their detached garage that rises to 22 feet and 4 inches in height. Skordina said the ADU is for her aging parents, who will live on the second story while the first level will remain a garage.
ADUs, also known as granny units or in-laws, are rising in popularity as a way to provide housing, and for homeowners to make money or provide housing for family or friends.
Shortly after the project was approved, a group of neighbors appealed the zoning administrator’s decision to the Planning Commission, claiming the project is oversized and incompatible with the neighborhood.
“We support 230 Iris having an ADU, but we are very much opposed to this specific ADU, which due to its massive size is both wildly incompatible with our neighborhood and disrespectful of neighbor privacy,” Lauren Ralph, who filed the appeal on behalf of four other neighbors, said during a meeting Nov. 5.
The staff report that came out several days before the meeting noted that the approval process for ADUs must be ministerial and officials echoed that point many times during the meeting. While the approval process for ADUs is ministerial, city law obligates staff to process any appeal of a zoning administrator’s decision.
Commissioners ultimately tossed out the appeal, saying they had no choice because of state law.
“It appears the city was in error processing this as discretionary,” said Commissioner Rick Hunter. “I’ve been convinced by our city attorney and by reading state law which requires we have to approve this ministerially and without discretion. This is one of those times our hands are tied.”
The appellants claimed this was the first time they had heard the word “ministerial” uttered since filing their appeal. They were upset the city did not make this state law clear to them and accepted their money — an appeal costs $667 — only to realize at the end of the process there was no chance their appeal would be approved.
Commissioners apologized to the appellants and, after the meeting, the city said it would refund the cost of the appeal and also revisit the process for them as well as the city’s ADU ordinance early next year.
“In this particular case, because the appellant didn’t know about the ministerial nature of the ADU appeal process — which might have prompted the appellant not to appeal had she known — the Planning Division decided to refund the appeal fee to the appellant,” the city said in a statement. “Since these appeals were filed, staff have been advising appellants of the ministerial criteria for ADU appeals.”
Skordina and Guerrina did not attend the hearing and feel the city should never have held it in the first place. Skordina said the permitting process has been not only long and costly, but also discretionary as the city forced her to make a variety of edits to her plans that she feels she did not have to make.
“The entire process has been discretionary since day one,” she said, adding that she’s made $50,000 to $60,000 worth of design changes to minimize impacts to neighbors. “I’ve been telling the city it’s a ministerial process all along. We’re just asking the city to follow the law. How hard is that?”
Skordina plans to sue the city for its handling of her application.
Skordina added that while her project survived the appeal and will move forward, she doesn’t feel like a winner.
“There are no winners in these situations because the process was messed up from the beginning,” she said. “I hope we can put this behind us and recover our peaceful neighborhood.”
Another two-story ADU on Oliver Street was appealed and denied for similar reasons in October and staff said that appellant has also been refunded.
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