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Fayetteville seeks to foster accessory dwelling development

by Stacy Ryburn | January 10, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.
File photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK The city of Fayetteville logo is seen at City Hall on Feb. 14, 2017.

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FAYETTEVILLE -- The city wants to encourage property owners and developers to include accessory dwellings on residential lots by easing restrictions on their construction, part of an effort to broaden housing types and promote affordability.

The City Council on Tuesday took up for the first time some changes to an ordinance regulating accessory dwelling units -- a secondary house or apartment that shares the same lot as a larger, primary home. The council will discuss the proposal again Jan. 18.

Jonathan Curth, the city's development services director, said the changes represent a slow peeling back of regulations started in 2018.

"As commonly put, these 'established neighborhoods' in Fayetteville -- they are so close to all the things people can walk to, but they are so low density, from a general perspective," Curth said. "We're not going to rezone Mount Nord for apartments. We're not going to rezone Wilson Park for apartments. They're probably going to be single-family, mostly, in perpetuity. How do you get more people in those areas in a very moderated amount without upsetting the fabric of the neighborhood?"

What's proposed

The city first adopted an ordinance in 2008 limiting accessory dwellings to 600 square feet. The size was increased to 950 square feet in 2015.

Planners noticed few applications were coming in for accessory dwellings -- about two or three per year, Curth said. In 2018, staff and planning commissioners devised some changes to the ordinance in hopes of seeing more applications.

The City Council adopted a new ordinance increasing the size cap for accessory dwellings to 1,200 square feet. Two also were allowed per lot -- one attached to a primary home, and one detached. Different owners also could own the structures on the same property, and shared utility metering was allowed.

Those are some of the rules accessory dwellings operate under today. Planners now see nine to 11 accessory dwelling applications per year, about 1% of the residential building permits the city grants annually, Curth said.

The proposal council is considering would further loosen restrictions in hopes of seeing more, Curth said.

Right now, accessory dwellings cannot exceed half the size of the primary house. The new proposal would lift any proportional size limitations. Curth said that restriction essentially excluded people with smaller homes from having accessory dwellings.

That means accessory dwellings could be bigger than the primary residence. In that case, the larger home would become the primary residence, Curth said. Additionally, top-floor attached units, such as attics converted into an accessory dwelling, could have roofs higher than the primary home's roof.

Accessory dwellings also would be allowed with duplexes, rather than strictly single-family homes as they are now.

Up to three accessory dwellings would be allowed per lot -- two detached, one attached.

The 1,200-square-foot total size cap would still apply regardless of how many accessory dwellings are on a property, Curth said. So if a lot had three accessory dwellings, they couldn't add up to more than 1,200 square feet combined. Accessory dwellings could be two stories, but may not exceed 1,200 square feet.

Cluster housing developments -- groups of homes with a shared courtyard or green space -- also could have accessory dwellings if granted a permit from the Planning Commission. Cluster homes are allowed as a conditional use requiring a permit in all residential districts. Developers who want to build cluster homes with accessory dwellings could ask the commission for both with one application, Curth said.

Anyone interested in building an accessory dwelling unit can call the city's planning division. The process is intended to be as simple as possible, with only a building permit from the city required in most cases, Curth said.

Curth gave several examples of the purposes accessory dwellings can serve. Different generations of a family can stay close together. Caretakers can live next door. Accessory dwellings can be rented out to provide supplemental income for the property owner.

From a city planning perspective, accessory dwellings add to the variety of housing types in a largely single-family neighborhood, Curth said. Putting more housing where housing already exists is a type of infill development the city strives for, he said.

Parking is only required for an accessory dwelling if the size of the unit or units exceeds 800 square feet, he said.

Some may claim accessory dwellings lead to tree removal, Curth said.

"But if you take the 10 [accessory dwelling units] we've seen built in the last year and put those in an apartment complex on the edge of town, they'd have to build a parking lot and a detention pond, and they almost certainly are going to remove trees," he said. "Or you can scatter them about in a very diffused way to mitigate their impact."

Differing perspectives

Making accessory dwelling units easy to build follows a principle urban planners have advocated for years, said Rick Cole, executive director of Congress for the New Urbanism. More kinds of housing makes housing more affordable and adds to a neighborhood's vitality, he said.

Congress for the New Urbanism is a member organization that advises cities in planning neighborhoods, particularly regarding climate change.

Design matters, Cole said. The placement and size of accessory dwellings have significant impact on neighborhoods as far as safety, quality of life and environmental concerns. Too many parking requirements can result in unused, hardened space, he said.

"Jamming units in willy nilly is not necessarily going to produce the best outcome," Cole said. "We recommend clear, objective design standards that are calibrated to the community."

Council Member Teresa Turk said she would keep an open mind about the proposed changes to the ordinance but had some concerns. Allowing up to four housing units where one otherwise would be could essentially undermine the zoning, she said.

For example, the city's most common residential zoning type allows up to four single-family homes per acre. In other words, if a house sits on a quarter-acre lot, up to four homes could sit on a total acre.

Under the proposed changes, each of those homes on a quarter-acre lot could have three additional units. That would mean up to 12 housing units on one acre under a zoning that's supposed to allow a maximum of four units an acre, Turk said.

Turk said she isn't against the idea of accessory dwellings. A common term for the units is the "mother-in-law house," where a relative lives in a smaller house and the rest of the family lives in the larger house. But the proposal to allow up to three accessory dwellings, or allow a dwelling to be larger than the main house, might be excessive, she said.

It also may be too soon to propose changes to an ordinance adopted in 2018, Turk said. The city has only had three years to weigh the impact of the ordinance on neighborhoods, and getting about 10 a year seems adequate, she said.

Turk said she has heard from some residents who have concerns over the accessory dwelling unit ordinance already.

"I know there's a certain interest in Fayetteville that would like to see more building and more development," she said.

"But from the people I talk to -- and they're not necessarily wealthy, I mean, they're middle income and they could be struggling, too -- they're not sold" on the accessory dwelling unit, or at least many of them, she said.

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