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An ADU in every backyard? City tries to align code on 'in-law' units with new state law
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An ADU in every backyard? City tries to align code on 'in-law' units with new state law

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An accessory dwelling unit might be coming to your neighborhood soon. Or maybe later. Or maybe not at all.

That’s just a fact of life in the ADU biz.

The Corvallis City Council on Monday night unanimously approved a series of land development code text amendments that will put the city in compliance with state law on the issue. The key feature of the new law, part of Senate Bill 1051, is that in areas zoned for detached single-family homes, municipalities must allow one ADU for every single-family house.

The ADU, also known as an "in-law" unit, is a tool that in recent years been used infrequently. Corvallis Planning Division records show 45 ADU permits have been issued since 1996. That’s about two per year.

The city is tackling the ADU code work in two phases. The amendments passed Monday night related to their permitted uses in all zones, how to deal with lots with multiple single-family dwellings, minimum lot size requirements, rules on ADUs in business zones and “housekeeping” items that aimed to clarify code language. A second phase will dig a bit deeper (see information box for details).

“I support this phased approach,” said Ward 1 Councilor Penny York.

Responding to concerns that ADUs will not provide needed “family housing” in Corvallis, York said that “we need other types of housing besides family housing. We need a variety. And this is one little tool. It’s a good way for us to start providing more diverse types of housing.”

Ward 2 Councilor Roen Hogg, who had led the fight against ADUs at a heated Dec. 18, 2017, council meeting, accepted the state mandate.

“It’s not optional for us to follow state law,” he said. “This is pretty straightforward.”

But that road forward is riddled with potential potholes. One key question is whether the new state law really means one ADU per single-family lot.

“In short, yes,” said Aaron Harris, the associate planner who presented the staff report.

But could there be circumstances in which there is not enough room to add an ADU or the addition would violate current city code?

“Yes,” said Harris. “All siting standards (setbacks, height, lot coverage, etc.) are still applicable to ADU developments.”

Harris and Community Development Director Paul Bilotta, who also fielded questions at Monday’s hearing, emphasized that there remain questions that the city cannot yet answer.

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When Hogg asked a question about how lot-size minimums might affect the process in Corvallis, Bilotta said that he had talked with state regulators about the issue and they noted “that it is a gray area that will be worked out over time.”

Ditto for parking.

“If the parking requirement for the primary dwelling unit is met, no additional off-street parking needs to be provided for the ADU,” Harris said. “The scope of ADU provisions contained in SB 1051 is quite narrow. The provisions do not address parking.”

But the city plans to do just that, noting parking issues will be part of the phase two work. In a city with the parking challenges Corvallis faces, adding two ADUs per year is not going to exacerbate parking headaches … but one in every backyard is a different story.

At that December 2017 meeting, Hogg expressed concerns that loosening the city’s ADU rules would lead to five-bedroom houses in backyards and more of the traffic, congestion and other livability issues that have posed challenges in neighborhoods near the Oregon State University campus.

Harris, however, said that 900 is the ADU maximum square footage allowed by city code, with smaller ADUs required depending on the size of the main house. Nothing in SB 1051 requires the city to change that policy.

And given that kitchens and bathrooms are required in all ADUs, a backyard unit of more than two bedrooms is extremely unlikely.

“Staff is not aware of any recent ADU proposals for an ADU with more than two bedrooms,” Harris said. but he noted: “In theory, an ADU could be developed with more than two bedrooms.”

The new law is one of a series of measures the Legislature has passed in the past two years in an effort to ease the housing supply shortage and hopefully keep housing prices from continuing to skyrocket.

In the 2016 short session, lawmakers passed bills allowing construction excise taxes and inclusionary zoning and limited voter-approved annexation. In the 2017 full session, the Legislature added SB 1051, which addresses affordability criteria, density, accessory dwelling units, the review period for development applications and the standards municipalities use when considering housing development.

The city began its review of its ADU policies in October 2017, with the Planning Commission passing the changes on a 3-2 vote last month. Both commissioners who opposed the changes, Tom Jensen and Susan Morré, were among the four residents who raised questions about the city proposal during Monday’s public hearing.

Jensen noted that the ADU rules could potentially double the density of some residential zones and “lower the quality of life.”

Morré aired concerns about the fact that paved patio space counts as “green area,” meaning that an ADU could be constructed right up to the concrete.

“An ADU can be built up to the edge of a green area,” Harris said. “Any ADU would also be subject to the applicable zone’s lot coverage standard, which varies by zone.”

Jensen and Morré chose not to identify themselves as members of the Planning Commission when they testified, a matter clarified by York during council questioning of Morré.

Contact reporter James Day at or 541-758-9542. Follow at or


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