Santa Rosa-area HOA's 'granny unit' ban makes wildfire survivor consider lawsuit
Nick Moen has a plan for his fire-scarred property in Sonoma County that suits his family's needs and would result in exactly the kind of housing that local and state officials want developed.
Moen wants to rebuild his Larkfield home, one of the nearly 5,300 Sonoma County homes destroyed in the October fires. And he wants to add a granny unit, with its own kitchen, bathroom and living quarters, on his property for his mother-in-law.
But that's where his plan has been stymied: A majority of residents in the homeowners association for Mark West Estates voted in January to implement a full ban of all secondary dwelling units. In the coming weeks, Moen has a mediation hearing with the homeowners association.
His case could have broader implications across the state, as homeowners seek to leverage elected officials' push for more housing against the limits proposed by HOAs, which set rules that apply to an estimated 6 million Californians.
Moen, a 36-year-old project manager for a mechanical contractor and father of two, admits he knew the Mark West Estates covenants were silent on whether a granny unit was allowed in his neighborhood. He acknowledges the covenants weren't specific, but with plenty of space on the 0.39-acre parcel to comply with county regulations, he plotted a strategy for eventually making his argument to the homeowners' association.
“I knew there was going to be some kind of challenge,” Moen said. “I wasn't planning on doing it now so publicly. And I didn't know I'd run into a cement wall.”
Flexibility in rules
The month before the homeowners association blocked granny units outright, the Santa Rosa City Council relaxed restrictions on so-called accessory dwelling units as part of an attempt to create additional, lower-cost housing and fuel the rebuilding effort. Permit fees were waived for units 750 square feet and smaller, and reduced on those reaching the maximum 1,200 square feet, among other measures.
But the unincorporated area of Larkfield where the Moens live is governed by Sonoma County.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has a lofty goal of building 30,000 new homes in the next five years. And earlier this month, supervisors updated policies to offer homeowners more opportunity for building granny units.
The new rules increase the secondary unit's maximum size from 1,000 square feet to 1,200 square feet, reduce permit fees, and suspend their collection until near occupancy, in addition to decreasing the amount of land required to obtain a permit.
“We're trying to … provide flexibility and lessen rules, and make it affordable,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said in an interview. “A lot of people being underinsured can afford to build an ADU, but might not have the ability currently to build their whole house in terms of the square footage. So we want to find ways to help people be able to stay here and rebuild their lives.”
The loosened rules follow a push at the state level, after Gov. Jerry Brown signed several bills the past two years granting homeowners easier access to building permits for secondary units and reducing local obstacles such as parking requirements.
Together, the moves are part of a widening campaign to address the state's housing crisis, with an estimated 1.8 million homes needed by 2025 to keep pace with population growth, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
Of the current 13 million homes, about 9 million are single-family homes, according to HCD.
State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, who authored two of the granny-unit bills signed by Gov. Brown and has a third working its way through committee, said the measures are meant to ease the development prospects for smaller units, which he said are more vital than ever for areas of California impacted by wildfires.
“I hope it's a godsend for people who have been displaced from the fires,” said Wieckowski. “The idea is that they can be built relatively quickly. It wouldn't take that long for a thousand homeowners in the Napa, Sonoma area to construct one, make a garage conversion or subdivide houses. We want to empower the homeowners to remodel any existing real property, build a unit for grandmama or a cottage in the backyard, and without the excessive costs of government.”
HOA versus granny units
Mark West Estates has more than 190 upper-end homes, none with existing granny units. Moen's destroyed four-bedroom, three-bath home on Pacific Heights Drive backs up to John B. Riebli Elementary and was listed at more than $800,000 on Zillow.
The architectural guidelines approved in January by Mark West Estates' Homeowners Association Board determined that granny units “do not maintain the character of the development.” Their prohibition, according to the document, aimed “to preserve Mark West Estates as a community of single-family homes.”