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Residential Density and ADUs in Longmont Up For Discussion At City Council

Should you be allowed to add an Additional Dwelling Unit (ADU) to your property without considering neighborhood density? That's what our City Council and City Staff are working on right now.

This content was originally published by the Longmont Observer and is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Should you be allowed to add an Additional Dwelling Unit (ADU) to your property without considering neighborhood density?  That's what our City Council and City Staff are working on right now.  These are often called Accessory Dwellings and you see them all the time.  These are apartments built over existing garages, or smaller 'houses' in the back yard of larger homes that can be used as mother in law/elderly parent/millennial's returning home after college type dwellings, as well as rental units that can create additional income for property owners.  They are sometimes associated with 'new urbanism'.  They are also associated with a higher density of people in an area that can bring more traffic, noise and parking issues if not well thought out.

As of 2015, Longmont's residential denisty was in the middle of cities in Colorado according to CivicDashboards.

Highest Residential Density in Colorado (households per square mile)

1. Denver, CO 1,982.7
2. Boulder, CO 1,861.9
3. Highlands Ranch, CO 1,590.3
4. Lakewood, CO 1,575.0
5. Westminster, CO 1,432.4
6. Centennial, CO 1,410.8
7. Longmont, CO 1,338.1
8. Thornton, CO 1,314.2
9. Arvada, CO 1,244.3
10. Fort Collins, CO 1,187.0
11. Colorado Springs, CO 988.9
12. Pueblo, CO 908.4
13. Loveland, CO 896.7
14. Aurora, CO 861.5
15. Broomfield, CO 808.2
16. Greeley, CO 763.5

In cities such as Longmont and Boulder, which are bordered by open space that limits the boundaries of the city, the density of residential areas often becomes a hot topic.  This is new to Longmont, but it's an issue that will become more apparent every month as our house prices and rents continue to rise.

A land development code text amendment request seems to have set off what could be one of the more divisive topics the  City Council deals with in 2017, namely, how dense should we allow existing residential areas to become?

Because this effects virtually every homeowner in Longmont and should be covered with all the detail needed by residents to develop their own opinions on what should be done in this area, we are including a detailed step by step exchange among City staff and City Council members.

The Specific Issue:

The request in question asks The City to remove the density calculation requirement for accessory dwelling units (ADU) as they are currently specified by the various individual zoning districts where ADU's are allowed.  The current districts that allow these ADU's with existing single family homes are:  E1, E2, R1, R2, RLE, RMD, CBD, A and MU zoning districts.  A document outlining these zoning designations can be reviewed here.

The property in question was an old horse carriage house- what today would be called a barn- built in the 19th or early 20th century that the current owners had torn down and planned to rebuild as a separate building/living unit on the property.   The intent was to create a rental unit for the property owner.  All the relevant documents presented to the City Council can be viewed on the City of Longmont Website at the link here.  The documents are available under item 11. A.  Or, search on "longmont city council agenda 5/9/17" and click on item 11 A.

One of the ways land use/development codes can be changed in Longmont is a citizen of the city can directly ask council to make a change in land development code (Code Chapter 1502).  Due to the circumstances and limited options available to the property owner, that's exactly what happened.  A copy of the application form is available for review here.  Note: the City uses a caching system that often changes URL's, so it may not work.  Use the search method listed above and click on the PDF named "application + supporting documents.

The application asks that the codes be changed to remove the density cap which would allow any number of ADU's to be built and not limited by dwelling units on the block.  As written, this request would, effectively, remove all density requirements on all existing residential areas of Longmont and would allow anyone to build ADU's on their property without regard to the resulting density of the neighborhood.

The options presented by The City staff to the City Council:

  1.  Direct staff to begin working on a code text amendment to modify the density restrictions as requested either in the RLE zoning district only, or city wide.
  2.  Direct staff to include the proposed amendment in the current Land Development Code update process.
  3.  Direct staff not to proceed with the code text amendment as proposed.

The city staff recommended #2.

The City Council Discussion:

Council Member Finley asked if the applicant could apply for a variance/exception.  The answer was: no according to current zoning (RLE for this house).  You can, however, do this in all other areas of the city.  She then asked if, in the updated code being worked on by City Staff now, could the staff make a provision in the variance/exception and include a public hearing in the variance/exception?

Mayor Combs agreed with city staff to do #2.  He then asked what the downside of allowing more ADU's would be (and noted it he understood the upsides such as lower housing costs and housing for family members such as elderly parents).  City staff responded it would be neighborhood specific.  The Prospect neighborhood was used as an example of where ADU's are accepted and even encouraged (as a side note- Prospect is the most expensive neighborhood, per square foot of housing, in Longmont).  He then outlined how HOA's make it difficult to do and it's difficult because of existing density caps in the current code.  Effectively, if the City upped the density caps, you may create covenants conflicts.  Some areas already have 8 to 10 units to the acre (6 is the cap for an RLE area).  For those residents, it negatively effects their neighborhood and way of life.  It was also noted, however, that it may be a great relief to have your elderly family member nearby, or an option for additional income.  City staff then underlined the city as a whole needs to look at and address this as a way to consider more housing for our residents for, as an example, people who want to retire and possibly move into the ADU themselves and rent out their larger home for additional income.

Council Member Moore asked what RLE means and it's history.  The City response was a definition of the acronym: Residential Low-density Established.  It was then outlined how this specific area was originally zoned to allow multifamily units.  The neighbors came together and asked the council, at that time (unspecified) to change the housing from a high density zone to a low density area.  Council, at that time, wanted to protect some property rights (the right to building a multi-family building, since some property owners had purchased property there specifically as an investment).  As a result, they included the right to additional units on property if the lot was large enough to support it, allowing a duplex, or triplex, etc.  The City staff then said, based on the envision Longmont document, all neighborhoods would be affected by future zoning as well and they were already addressing these issues on a citywide basis.  Council member Moore than said he agreed with #2, based on this.

Council Member Bagley asked: if we remove these density limits, could he build an ADU on his property in the Sundance neighborhood?  The City responded that the limitation was, likely, in his HOA covenants due to the current density of his area, but that the area was already low density which would likely allow him to do it per city code.  Bagley said he felt for the applicant and understood the request, but, he thought it was not a good idea to allow anyone to build ADU's that would cause problems with traffic, etc, and the HOA covenants would, indeed, open it up to private legal problems.  He would rather pass an ordinance that removed the no variance limitation on the RLE and solve the problem with a scalpel vs. a sledgehammer.  He asked if that's possible.  The City staff responded that yes, it's possible and they can bring back a pro/con of each option.  Bagley reiterated that he would like to see the RLE restriction removed as the best way to deal with it.

Council Member Christensen said she agreed with Bagley and Finley and said she did not want, under any circumstances, the restriction on density lifted.  She said it could cause a doubling of people in a neighborhood, more dogs, annoyances, more traffic, more noise and parking issues for the people that currently live there.  She added that there's a reason for a cap on density.  Her belief was we don't want to undermine the wishes of specific neighborhoods. She noted that she would like to do this on the west side as well.  She 's concerned people buy land up, scrap it and 'turn it into nothing'.  She felt lifting the no variance rule is the best approach.  She noted that she didn't understand why a waiver and permit wasn't already granted as well.  She agreed with Bagley that a precise solution was the best approach and that she would like to see the staff come back with adding that to the development code, but, that we should help the property owner who should be treated like the others in the area who where allowed to build multi unit buildings.

Council Member Peck said that on the variance, it should go through the normal code process but that she would like to see a maximum foot print size for an ADU so there's standard as well as a height variance maximum.  She asked if the owner could build the old carriage house as it was (not an ADU) and was told yes.  She said that's what should be allowed vs. a rental unit/ADU.

Council Member Santo's said he was not in favor of having staff work on this at all.  His stance was we have codes and rules in place already, but, if you tear down something without a permit, as was done here, why should we allow them to move forward with rebuilding it?  He noted everyone else seemed open to making changes, but that he was against changes of any kind at all and to let everything stand as it is.

There was then some confusion on what to actually direct staff to do.

Council Member Moore than clarified that what the applicant requested was one option, but other options would also be brought back to council through the land development code process as they are doing now.  Effectively, option #2.

Council Member Christensen again emphasised she wanted it to leave out all density changes.

The motion itself was never clearly defined, although it seemed to be #2 "Direct staff to include the proposed amendment in the current Land Development Code update process.".

All voted for this except Council Member Santos, who voted against it.

Bagley then asked that, added to #2 as one of the options, an ordinance be brought back to allow Finley's idea of lifting restrictions on RLE districts that would allow a case by case variance.  Moore and Santos voted against this, the rest of the rest of the council voted for it.

Complete video of the discussion can be found here.