Tucson City Council delays law allowing backyard casitas

Tucsonans might not be able to start building backyard casitas until January following the city council’s decision to pause an earlier vote that allowed the structures in residential areas.


Casitas, also called Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs, are small homes that are built alongside existing houses. Proponents said they offer more living space for large families, are a better alternative to nursing homes for the elderly and could create more low-cost rental options.


The city council adopted an ordinance on Oct. 19 to allow casitas on Tucson’s residential lots for the first time in decades. Staffers spent a year developing the change and it was endorsed by two city commissions before its final approval.


But council members froze the ordinance last Tuesday in order to reconsider some provisions at their meeting on Dec. 7. No changes were actually made to the rules, but the vote means that residents — who would have been able to start building casitas this week — will have to wait until at least next month to start construction.


Further delays could push that date back to Jan. 6 if the council adopts the changes that are up for consideration in three weeks. Adjusting the original ordinance that has already passed would restart the 30-day waiting period between when a new rule is approved and when it goes into effect.


“It felt a little rushed and it’s really important we get this right,” said Councilman Paul Cunningham about the original ordinance. “Under no circumstances do I want to repeal the ADU. I’m looking at this one tweak because I think it makes sense for a lot of neighborhoods.”


Cunningham asked the council to consider a small reduction to the allowed casita sizes. The proposal is mainly designed to limit the use of ADUs for student housing and reduce the chance that too many people will live on any one residential lot.


Those issues can be created by developers who buy college-area land, build casitas and rent them out as “mini-dorms” alongside occupied homes on the same lot. It leads to residential neighborhoods becoming overcrowded, according to city officials.


A “group dwelling” rule already exists to limit the number of unrelated people who can live on a given lot. Councilman Steve Kozachik said the provision won’t help.


“With respect to the group dwelling ordinance, the sad reality is that it’s virtually unenforceable because nobody from the city is knocking on doors saying ‘prove to me that you’re not related,’” Kozachik said.


The size reduction won’t stop people from breaking the group dwelling rule, but could lessen the impact in neighborhoods near the University of Arizona; most lots in that area are small and would only be allowed to have casitas large enough for one person.


Council members who opposed reconsideration floated the idea of letting the original ordinance go into effect and then introducing new rules down the line if issues cropped up. The problem with that approach is it can leave the city open to lawsuits under Proposition 207.


The 2006 law puts city officials on the hook for any money lost by homeowners as the result of new restrictions. If the city decreases the size limits after residents build casitas, Tucson could have to pay for the renovations or any decreases in property value.


“This is not about trying to stop ADUs. It’s simply saying let’s respect the areas that are going to be the most negatively impacted by the larger sizes and leave ourselves the room to expand upwards,” Kozachik said. “We can’t do it in the reverse later on when we’re subject to 207 challenges.”


Councilmembers Karin Uhlich and Lane Santa Cruz represented the two votes against reconsideration.


Uhlich said the experts who comprise the city’s planning commission already grappled with these issues and still voted unanimously to endorse the original ordinance. She said she felt “like we did the best that we could to serve this need citywide.”


Santa Cruz was visibly frustrated with the motion to reconsider, calling it “such a waste of our time” following the yearlong development process that went into the original plan.


“I’m exhausted from continuing to talk in circles around this item. It’s a mistake to bring this ordinance up for reconsideration,” she said. “I want to get to all of the other housing affordability and housing stock that we need, and it’s unfortunate that we get so wrapped up around this particular issue.”


The casitas ordinance will be revisited by the City Council in three weeks. If the changes are approved, residents will not be able to build casitas until early January.


AUTHOR: Sam Kmack

SOURCE: https://tucson.com


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