ADU Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance

Palo Alto City Council is finally weighing in on ADUs or Accessory Dwelling Units! (see staff report) Granny Units, Second Units, Nanny Flats, In-Law Unit, whatever you call them, if you want to make it easier to build them, come to City Hall on Tuesday March 7, 2017 8:30p (at 250 Hamilton Avenue) to show your support!  

Palo Alto Forward's Board of Directors has just submitted the following letter to [email protected]  If you'd like to write in with similar comments, please do so, and please cc: [email protected]  



Dear Mayor Scharff, Vice Mayor Kniss and Honorable Council Members,

The Board of Directors of Palo Alto Forward thanks you for your attention to all the details of this very important ordinance. After water, food, and clothing, housing is a basic need. Finding ways to expand housing options (like ADUs and JADUs) for our community members is an economic, environmental, social justice and humanitarian issue.  Above all it enables us to continue nurturing the vibrant and diverse community already here in the city we call home, Palo Alto. 

In 2015, Council introduced a Colleague’s Memo to reform our ADU ordinance to 1) facilitate ADU creation while minimizing impacts to community character with sensitivity to neighborhood design standards, 2) consider steps to bring non-compliant ADUs into compliance and 3) consider other recommendations. 

The demand for ADUs is very high - NextDoor group and Stanford lists showcase frequent requests for backyard cottages or second units.  The recent housing shortage has pushed former residents out of the area, and many PA commuters further out in search of affordable housing. The National Citizen’s Survey revealed “Availability of Affordable Quality Housing” as the area of greatest dissatisfaction by far in Palo Alto (it was rated an 8.2 out of 100). During the May 2015 Comp Plan Summit, Granny Units/In-Laws/Second Units were frequently prioritized as Top Housing Ideas. Policies H1.1.2 and H3.3.5 of Palo Alto’s 2015-2023 Housing Element supports creation of ADUs throughout the city as an easy way to create housing stock without significantly impacting a neighborhood’s physical character.   State law also changed in 2016 with Senate Bill 1069 and Assembly Bills 229 and 2406 to encourage and simplify creation of ADUs in communities like ours. 

We encourage you to adopt a new ADU ordinance ASAP, but also to go beyond state law and establish the City of Palo Alto as a strong leader to facilitate creation ADUs. In particular, the following nine recommendations should also be considered and adopted.

1. Lot Size:  Please allow ADUs on any size R-1, lot, provided the square footage of the main structure and the ADU do not exceed the allowable Floor Area Ratio (FAR) and is in compliance with state regulations. From a community design perspective,having two smaller structures on a lot is more compatible with typical single family residential character, and more pleasant, than a single monolithic building which maximizes FAR for a parcel. 

2. ADU Size: State law allows ADUs up to 1200 sf, while Palo Alto’s ordinance has a maximum ADU size of 900 sf. For lots that are larger than its zone minimum, please allow a higher ADU size in proportion to the lot area size, up to the state maximum of 1,200 SF.  For example, a 10,659 sf lot in an R-1 (8,000) zone is 33% larger than the minimum. The ADU size could then increase proportionally by 33%, to 1200 sf. 

3. Transit Proximity: State law utilizes the HUD definition of transit options, and is not limited to transit routes with a minimum of 15 minute headways. Please use the transit options listed in the Comp Plan Transportation Element Update, including all Public and Private funded options like PA Shuttle, Marguerite.  While the PTC recommended expanding the transit proxmity definition to 0.75 miles, we encourage you to expand it further to 1.0 miles. 

4. Parking: Please allow ADU/JADU parking spaces to be designated in the front setback. This reflects how most people use their driveway, keeps exhaust fumes closer the street, and not further on site or near neighbors. Front setback parking also allows side setbacks to be have more pervious surfaces, accommodate trees and landscape and remain as open space for occupants of the ADU and main residence. Mountain View’s proposed Section 36.12.70 proposes shared driveway parking for ADUs and Redwood City’s ADU Ordinance Article 30.5 allows front setback parking for ADUs, especially for tandem parking. 

You should also consider removing all parking requirements for ADUs, not just JADUs. There is rightful concern about areas with limited on-street parking, but future ADUs in areas with RPPs can be regulated by considering Mountain View’s proposed Section 36.12.75 which requires but does not offer on-street parking permits to occupants of ADUs.

5. Utilities: Please allow ADUs and JADUs to have the same requirements and be allowed on the same meter.  Requiring additional electric, water and gas meters for ADUs can inhibit ADU creation due to expense. Redwood City exempts homeowners from a water main upgrade. The owner should be allowed make the decision whether to create new utilities or prorate utility service among residents - many existing residences with ADUs currently prorate utility use.     

6. Entitlements: Please keep in mind state law requires that ADUS and JADUs be approved by ministerial review and not be bogged down by an onerous entitlement process.  If proposal complies with zoning guidelines, it should be approved.  Palo Alto does not have design review, and issues such as door placement or style choices violates the standard of ministerial review, which is a function performed without the use of judgment by the person performing the act or duty. 

7. Height: Two-story ADUs or a new ADU addition over an existing garage may be the best design solution to minimize lot coverage, or preserve existing tree canopy.  Provided these units comply with privacy issues (like 5’ high sills or no openings above 7’ facing adjacent property lines) and other zoning standards, the maximum height for an ADU should be 25’, not 17’.   

8. Compliance for Grandfathered ADUs: Many homeowners may have already taken matters into their own hands and built ADUs. If people currently occupy these units, they should be reviewed for life safety.  The city can run a short 2 year program to bring these units into compliance or have them taken down. San Francisco recently created a legalization process as part of their new ADU Ordinance. 

9. Pre-Approved Designs: City staff time is limited, and because ADUs must be approved ministerially, one way to expedite approval of ADUs is to pre-approve several new ADU designs.  This will save on building (architectural & structural) and fire review. Planning, Public Works or Utilities review could even be completed over the counter. This provides homeowners with predictability, which is important in such a process. Santa Cruz has an ADU Development Program which offers 7 preapproved plan sets

Let’s make it easier for our community members to construct ADUs.  Even modest numbers can make a difference - If we could see 500 ADUs/JADUs constructed by 2030 (about 40 per year) we could meet an eighth of our Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), and do so:

  • without impacting the physical character of our community,

  • by distributing (not concentrating) the traffic impacts and

  • by putting revenue directly in the pockets of local homeowners, not large outside landowners or developers.   

Thank you again for your consideration of our points. For your reference, we have attached an appendix with additional policy options and information including city ordinance sections, state language, and ADU resources from other cities where applicable. We look forward to your discussion on Tuesday night.  


Palo Alto Forward Board of Directors

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