Berkeley’s patchwork policies show how state housing goals complicate ADU rules


On paper, it’s never been easier to get plans for accessory dwelling units approved in California.

But state lawmakers’ ongoing effort to streamline development of ADUs, which include in-law units and granny flats, frequently butts up against local concerns, especially in places like Berkeley where housing is in short supply, as are plots of land suitable for safely building these minuscule homes.

In a marathon race to keep up with complex, ever-evolving state law, Berkeley’s planning and legal departments have stayed busy crafting — and recrafting — byzantine ADU regulations and policies since at least 2019, when state lawmakers started slashing red tape and simplifying approvals for ADU projects that met broad lists of state requirements.

And the nearly three-hour legislation session during Tuesday’s City Council meeting offers the rest of the state a peek at what practical implementation of the state’s revised ADU rules actually looks like.

In a 7-0 vote, with two members abstaining, elected officials approved a list of policy updates that, in part, set a citywide 20-foot maximum height limit, loosened restrictions for projects in a property’s front yard, and preserved requirements to inform adjacent neighbors of proposed ADU projects — even though there’s no way for residents to appeal.

The council also decided to not mandate any on-site parking for ADU tenants or existing property owners. While officials from the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) recently reminded the city that this stance aligns with state law, debate about how a lack of parking might increase congestion and bottleneck wildfire evacuations along steep, degrading streets in the Berkeley hills deadlocked elected leaders last month.

The latest tweaks to Berkeley’s ADU policies will return for a second read and potential approval at a future council meeting.

Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, who helped author several of the approved changes, emphasized that the 20-foot height limit may help increase separation between structures in the hills, and Berkeley Fire Department Chief David Sprague said it would not pose additional hazards.

Additionally, Kesarwani said having a uniform standard citywide will streamline construction of new homes that are physically better equipped to withstand wildfires.

“If somebody is wanting to create an accessory dwelling unit in the hills, we are better off giving them the option to go up instead of out,” Kesarwani said. “We have some relevant statistics from Paradise California — 51% of the homes built after 2008 were undamaged. Only 18% of the homes built prior to 2008 were untouched.”

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