ZOUTF Task #5: Encourage Accessory Dwellings

Decatur already allows for accessory dwellings (aka garage apartments, aka backyard apartments, aka an escape from your loud family), but Task 15b of the 2010 Decatur Strategic Plan calls for greater support of accessory dwellings.

The Zoning Ordinance Update Task Force’s March presentation notes that current regulations surrounding accessory BUILDINGS enforce an 1,000 sq/ft limit, a maximum height of 25 ft, and need to be set back 3′ from the property line.  They are allowed to have a full bath and a kitchen, with the exception of a stove. Accessory DWELLINGS on the other hand have a different set regulations, including occupancy is limited to two people, lots must be in excess of 12,000 sq/ft and be more than 75′ wide, and they must meet the same rear and side yard setbacks of the main house.

There are a number of proposed changes to this ordinance.  Here they are, right out of the presentation…

Any size lot can build an Accessory Dwelling if the following requirements are met:

  • 1 unit is owner occupied
  • Same side and rear yard setbacks as the main house
  • Provide 1 off street parking space per lot
  • Is within the 40% floor area and lot coverage maximum
  • Is within the maximum 25 foot building height limit

Proposed changes to Accessory Buildings:

To further distinguish the difference between buildings and dwellings, the following changes are suggested:

  • A maximum height limit of 15 feet for accessory buildings.
  • No more than a ½ bath (sink & toilet) can be built in accessory buildings.

Additional changes to encourage Accessory Dwellings:

  • Allow attic and basement apartments to be considered accessory dwelling units.
  • Should the city provide pre-approved plans for accessory dwelling units, similar to Seattle, WA.

Got opinions/feedback?  Email Decatur’s Planning Director directly at [email protected]

Photo courtesy of Modern Shed

33 thoughts on “ZOUTF Task #5: Encourage Accessory Dwellings”

  1. my opinion on accessory dwellings/buildings is that i need to find out how to get one a.s.a.p! sounds like a slice of heaven…

  2. What is the rationale for the off-street parking requirement? That seems contrary to Decatur’s stated aspirations about walkability, active living and aging in place.

    1. To me, all of this on street parking makes it difficult and dangerous for walking and riding bikes. Which is why I wonder why the city makes it so difficult to build driveways that will allow for two cars. I would much rather have all these cars OFF the street.

      1. “For pedestrians, on-street parking creates a buffer between moving traffic and individuals walking on the sidewalks, providing a measure of safety and reducing the level of perceived noise. Further, depending upon how on-street parking is situated on a street, it can also serve as a traffic calming device, thereby slowing vehicles and potentially reducing the number and severity of accidents.”


        1. Good point. But when there are no sidewalks (as on my street), all of the cars on the street causes a hazard to my children.

          And you are correct, there is not a simple solution.

          1. If all Decatur streets had sidewalks, we wouldn’t have this problem. Why does a minority of neighbors get to disapprove sidewalks for a street?

              1. The instances AHID is referring to were ones in which residents had taken emotional ownership of the city right-of-way and prevented the building of sidewalks on city land because they considered it part of their yard.

                Ideally, property rights end at one’s own property line.

                1. Well, that’s just wrong. I hope those folks have been paying taxes on that property of which they claim “emotional ownership.”

                2. To be fair, some sidewalk opponents cited the issue of sidewalks increasing the impervious surface issue and run-off. But given how much house and garage enlargement was being approved for the neighborhood, sidewalks hardly seemed like the proper target for preventing runoff.

        1. Used to live on Pinecrest in Glenwood Estates–everybody parked on the streets. We got to be friends with everyone around us.

          Now we live on a street where everyone parks in back of their houses. We still have great neighbors, but never talk to them.

          1. Interesting insight. My husband parks on the street regularly and that is indeed how he gets to know the neighborhood. When I was single without children, parking in our driveway, and without a dog as an incentive to walk in the neighborhood, I did not get to know my neighbors all that much. Well, with the exception of the elderly watchdog neighbors who would call me regularly about anything strange going on, including my now-husband’s visits.

  3. I don’t see how this encourages Accessory Dwellings. These new requirements make it difficult to build – especially with the same set back requirements of the main house. This takes away the option of a garage apartment. Right now, you can have a garage within 3 ft of your property line. But the new requirements won’t allow this.

    This just seems like more restrictions … and therefore less ability to build.

    1. I think you are confusing accessory buildings (garages w/ no apartment) with accessory dwellings.

      First of all, it encourages accessory dwellings by actually allowing them for any lot. Right now, under the code, you cannot have an accessory dwelling at all unless your lot is 75ft wide and 12,000 square feet or greater. I don’t know they exact figure, but this would probably exclude 90% of the lots in the City of Decatur. 99% of lots in a neighborhood like Oakhurst.

      The side and rear setback requirements is not a new requirement. That is what is already the code for accessory dwellings. However, I do think that it should be loosened up a bit considering that the restrictions may not be as flexible on smaller lots.

      The only change they look to be making with accessory buildings is decreasing the maximum height. Thus, you could still build a garage 3 feet from the property line (as you can today) but it just can’t have a second story apartment. If you want to do that you have to follow the guidelines for an accessory dwelling. I think this is meant to deter people from saying they are building an accessory building but converting it to a dwelling after the COA has been issued.

      1. I hear your point. But (from what I understand) right now I can build a garage within 3ft of my property line that is two stories, has a full bathroom and a kitchen (with no stove), and is 1000 square ft. If I want to build that in the future, I will have to have the same set backs as my home, which is a complete deal breaker – there would not be enough turn around space for the car and the garage. With the new set back issue, it will make garage apartments very difficult to build. (In my opinion.)

        1. I understand your point, but what you are talking about is not a legal apartment that you are supposed to rent out and someone is supposed to live in full time. That is why they don’t allow you to have a stove.

  4. Great idea for more impervious and less trees. Is that what Decatur really wants? Backyards are the last stand of any semblance of natural habitat and soil for wildlife and trees. I saw many ADs in my years on the Board of Appeals. They can be a real headache for neighbors with light being blocked, trees being removed or destroyed, privacy issues, and increased and changed water flows. That said, I am a huge fan of the mini home and it could allow from more affordable housing. If well managed we can have both, maybe designating tree corridors and AD corridors within Decatur but how do that fairly. My point being is that this is not a simple issue and I am surprised it has been listed as a priority without any mention of the cost of said priority.

    1. Remember, Treesrock, that you still have to be within the 40% lot coverage in order to build an accessory dwelling. So you are not really impacting any lot where someone couldn’t already build a garage. All this is saying is that you could have a legal apartment on top of said apartment.

        1. I hear what you are saying about a “legal apartment”. I just want the option of having a guest space above my garage – with a full bath. I will be quite unhappy if that option is taken away from me. I don’t need a legal apartment. I wonder if there is another way to regulate the apartments and still allow us to use our garages for additional living space.

          1. No, I think you have a very good point. I think they need to be more flexible on the side and rear setback requirements for R-60 lots. Maybe 5 feet instead of a 3 is a good compromise.

      1. True, but it provides more incentive to add an accessory dwelling so more will be built and less large yards will remain. They already are very popular, this will even make them more financially feasible, once again, at the expense of precious previous ground with intact soil ecosystems.

        1. I suppose that is true. There are trade offs for everything. For anything that is a benefit, there is a corresponding negative.

          In this case, we would be allowing homeowners to have small apartments for either family to live or to rent out as affordable housing for mostly single people …. adding diversity and vitality to our neighborhoods. On the other hand, we might be adding a small amount of congestion and parking issues and adding more impervious area.

          Personally, I believe that the current restriction of not being able to have impervious area on 60% of your property is enough of a measure to meet this concern. We already allow people to use up to 40% of their land for impervious surface and this would not change any of that. So, in this case, I believe that accessory dwellings should be allowed.

          1. You would be surprised how much land coverage is 40%, especially in the larger lots. My house covers about 20% of the lot and to build on the extra 20% would roughly double my lot and have a big visual and environmental impact. I hate to see economic insentives to remove this precious forest which is one of the largest in Decatur. In regards to smaller lots, the impact is even more intense on neighbors since they will typcially be closer to the buidlings and it is more likely to impact water flow and light. I realize life changes in denser cities like Decatur and this is likely to pass because will increases land values for owners but lets just all be clear it will cost the City in infrastucture (more storm water) and the Community in quality of life (less trees, habitat). I also doubt it could be considered sustainable in terms of the our larger impact on the Environment in terms of Carbon Sequestration, stream erosion, and Heat Island effect. At the very least, lets require that Accessory Dwellings be water neutral, which would require rain barrels & green roofs to minimize flooding into streams and neighbors.

            1. >At the very least, lets require that Accessory Dwellings be water neutral, which would require rain barrels & green roofs to minimize flooding into streams and neighbors.

              I’m fine with that.

  5. for AD: “same side and rear setbacks as main house” — A lot of older houses have narrower setbacks than would be permitted under the current code. If lot coverage and height limits are met, can a new AD be sited with the same side setback as the existing house?

  6. Is a tree house allowed under these rules? It would be difficult to meet the height requirements, but it would not add any impervious area. I visited a guy in WA who lived in one full time.

    1. Getting a big hoot out of visualizing Decatur grappling with ordinances to regulate tree houses (the kind you’re talking about, that someone could actually live in)! We have enough trouble trying to deal with trees and houses separately!

    2. The juvenile part of my imagination is perseverating on the bathroom logistics.

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