Accessory dwelling unit ordinance wins final County Commission approval

Most speakers during public hearing applaud the potential such housing offers

A cottage behind a home could be used as an accessory dwelling unit. Image from the Florida Housing Coalition

It took about 33 minutes for the Sarasota County Commission this week to make accessory dwelling units legal in two residential zoning districts in the unincorporated areas of the county.

With only one of five speakers during the Sept. 25 public hearing opposed to the new ordinance, the commissioners unanimously approved the changes to the county’s Unified Development Code of land development and zoning regulations.

The law will take effect after it has been filed with the Office of the Florida Secretary of State. In the past, county staff has said that typically takes a couple of days.

Over the past year, commissioners have talked of the potential of accessory dwelling units to serve people needing workforce housing and as homes where aging family members can maintain a sense of independence while living close to loved ones.

Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out during the first public hearing on the proposed ordinance — conducted on Aug. 28 — and again this week that she has a grandson living in a one-room studio apartment in Tampa that stands behind a house. She joked that the structure probably was a tool shed in the past.

It is affordable for him, she indicated, and “He can walk to work.”

Among the proponents of the ordinance, Janet Carlson of Sarasota told the commissioners, “I want to thank you for bringing this topic to our county. I think to have flexible and creative housing is kind of a gold star for us. … I can only say ‘Hurrah!’”

She lauded the board members for enabling “the elderly [to] age in place.”

Both Carlson and a second speaker, real estate agent John Beiler, also pointed to the prospect of retirees being able to generate extra income by renting the units.

If a person can charge $500 to $600 a month for such a dwelling, Beiler pointed out, “That’s a game changer for a lot of these people that are living on $1,000 or $1,00 a month.”

“I’ve seen this time and time again,” he said: Accessory dwelling units add value to property.

A graphic shows two examples of how accessory dwelling units could be added to lots as the property owner complies with the applicable setbacks in the zoning regulations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Detert did raise one note of caution for homeowners contemplating renting such structures.

In response to a question from Detert, Jane Grogg, manager of the county’s Neighborhood Services Division, explained that staff had learned that an accessory dwelling unit could have an impact on a property owner’s homestead exemption.

The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office will make an assessment on a case-by-case basis, Grogg replied.

The facts and the concerns

At the outset of the Sept. 25 hearing, Grogg offered a summary of the facets of the proposed ordinance that she explained in more detail on Aug. 28.

Accessory dwelling units will be allowed only in the Residential Single Family and Residential Estates zoning districts, she pointed out. Each structure can be no larger than 750 square feet; it can have a kitchen; it may be attached to a primary residence, or detached; and it must conform to the architectural style, roof style and exterior appearance of the principal structure.

Furthermore, the owner of the property must live either in the main structure or in the accessory dwelling unit.

Finally, the ordinance says the accessory dwelling units cannot be counted for density purposes, Grogg explained. However, they will not be allowed in cluster subdivisions or on the barrier islands. Staff wanted to prevent the potential for problems in single-family neighborhoods on the islands, she added.

A graphic summarizes thechanges to the county’s Unified Development Code, which contains the land development and zoning regulations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On another point, Grogg said, “This ordinance would not supersede a homeowner’s deed restrictions or covenants” in a neighborhood governed by a homeowners association.

In other words, the homeowners association rules would prevail over the new county regulations.

The only opponent of the ordinance who addressed the commissioners on Sept. 25 was Dan Lobeck, representing the nonprofit Control Growth Now.

While his organization has been a strong advocate of affordable housing over the past 30 years, he said, making accessory dwelling units legal is a step that will increase residential density. Developers are excited about the prospect of doubling density in neighborhoods throughout the county, he added. Yet, “Sarasota County is not a sardine can.”

As evidenced by the results of the county’s 2019 Citizen Opinion Survey, Lobeck continued, seven times as many respondents were concerned about population growth and traffic compared to the number worried about the lack of affordable housing.

Lobeck also warned that the creation of the new units will lead to more vacation rentals in single-family neighborhoods.

Detert asked Grogg about Lobeck’s remark on that point, telling Grogg, “I don’t want Airbnb or any of that kind of stuff going on [in the accessory dwelling units].”

The new structures will be governed by the restrictions in the underlying zoning districts, Grogg responded. “There’s not an additional restriction that is being proposed.”

This is another example of an accessory dwelling unit — a ‘granny flat’ — that could be used for workforce housing. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The county’s regulations on short-term rentals have been grandfathered-in by the Florida Legislature, staff has explained on numerous occasions. In Residential Single Family zoning districts, no dwelling unit can be rented more often than once a month.

Grogg told Detert that staff would check into the issue in regard to the accessory dwelling units ordinance, to determine whether any other safeguard could be put into place.

At the conclusion of the Sept. 25 discussion and vote, Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, explained that staff completed a report last year on short-term rental policies and the state law. He would make sure Detert received a copy of it, he added.

(The report’s completion followed a series of complaints directed to the county commissioners about problems in single-family residential areas on Siesta Key.)

Other praise for the potential

Jon Mast addresses the commission on Aug. 21 during a workshop on affordable housing. News Leader image

As chair of the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, Jon Mast also praised the board members this week for carrying through with the drafting of the ordinance on the basis of the committee’s recommendation.

In making the motion to approve the new law, Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out, “We want these [accessory dwelling units] to have kitchens. … We don’t want hot plates and space heaters” and situations that do not comply with modern building code standards.

In areas of the United States where accessory dwelling units have been made legal, Maio continued, he had seen no evidence of their contributing to density problems. Maio noted the “widespread use of these ordinances” and suggested that detractors check with the American Planning Association about its findings regarding such units.

“This is great stuff,” Maio said. “This is how we satisfy the needs of a diverse community. … We are responding to today’s world and how people live and how they want to live.”