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Discussions Continue in Santa Cruz County About Loosening ADU Ordinances

Discussions Continue in Santa Cruz County About Loosening ADU Ordinances

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors has been discussing the need for changes to the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) handbook for months with the expectation that outstanding issues would be resolved at this month’s meeting. However, the discussion will continue as the board rejected proposed recommendations at the August 10 gathering.

The meeting included “a public hearing to consider an ordinance amending County Code chapters 13.10 and 13.20 regarding accessory dwelling units … a de minimis waiver for coastal development permits, [and] a CEQA Notice of Exemption.” The board was expected to “take related actions, as outlined in the memorandum of the Planning Director.” However, that did not happen.

Current discussions were prompted by new ADU laws that went into effect in California on January 1, 2020. Changes require updates to the County’s ADU ordinance. According to SCCO Planning, key provisions contained in these laws cover the following topics: a streamlined ADU review process, reduced fees, more lenient development standards, reduced parking requirements, junior ADUs (JADUs), multifamily dwelling ADUs, owner-occupancy requirements, short-term rentals, nonconformities, code enforcement, and the separate sale of ADUs. Some changes to ADU ordinances were updated this year, but additional discussions are still ongoing.

The scope of the ADU ordinance updates includes:

  • Aligning local ADU regulations with state law and the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) ADU handbook with the intent of removing barriers to ADU construction;
  • Clarifying ADU regulations to reduce points of confusion for applicants and staff
  • Streamlining the ADU process; and,
  • Addressing special circumstances surrounding disaster recovery and the coastal zone balance of ADU regulations and the California Coast Act.

Supervisors used the August 10 meeting to share their concerns about the proposed changes.

Proposed Changes to Santa Cruz County ADU Regulations

County Senior Planner Daisy Allen presented the proposed modifications to the county code. The changes have been endorsed by the Planning Commission and include the following:

Updates needed to align ADU ordinances with state law:

  • Number of ADUs per property based on primary dwelling type (single or multifamily), not on family zone district
  • No maximum size for conversion ADUs; demolition/rebuilding permitted
  • ADU square footage based on habitable square footage
  • Four-foot side and rear yard setbacks are now applicable to corner lots and double-frontage lots
  • Public improvements not required for ADUs and JADUs
  • Discretionary improvements not required for ADUs and JADUs (except for special circumstances)
  • Permit allocation (limit) not applicable to ADUs and JADUs

Number of ADUs allowed per parcel:

  • One ADU and one JADU per conforming single-family dwelling (state minimum is per parcel)
  • Two detached ADUs per multifamily dwelling and conversion ADUs for up to 25% of units (state law minimum is either/or)

ADU floor calculations:

  • ADUs and JADUs not counted toward primary dwelling’s calculation of square footage
  • Inclusion of up to 150 square feet of new area for JADUs (just like conversion ADUs)
  • Removal of 2% floor area credit for small parcels with ADUs
  • Allowance of an 800-square foot ADU as a “credit” (not counted toward floor area) and removal of the 16-foot height limit

Design and placement:

  • ADU design
    • No requirements for architectural design
    • Application of County Code 16.42.060[D] to historic preservation
    • Cooking appliances in the ADU must be built-in (not portable)
  • ADU placement on a parcel
    • Independent JADU and ADU attachments to a single-family unit make it a multifamily dwelling in terms of building code
    • ADUs can be located more than 100 feet from a primary dwelling to meet agricultural buffers
    • Secondary ADUs must be set back from the rear property line by 8 feet


  • One parking space per new ADU construction (no parking required for conversion ADUs or JADUs)
  • Parking exemption for new construction ADUs that meet certain criteria (e.g., proximity to transit stop); not applicable to certain coastal areas
  • No replacement parking is required for conversion garages; not applicable to certain coastal areas

Approval and occupancy:

  • ADU construction allowed before reconstruction of primary dwelling during disaster recovery
  • Coastal zone development permit waiver added
  • Owner occupancy requirement removed
  • Accessory structures previously restricted from habitable use can be converted to ADUs

Infrastructure and utilities:

  • ADUs or JADUs may have a separate driveway from the primary dwelling
  • Sprinkler requirements clarified
  • Utility connection fees charged for conversion ADUs and JADUs built concurrently with the new primary dwelling
  • Impact fees not required for JADUs

Supervisor Manu Koenig supported many of the changes that reduce the strict guidelines surrounding the code. He stated, “All of this will really liberalize the code and allow for a lot more construction.” For example, Koenig liked the idea of allowing multiple ADUs on large parcels and the development of two-story ADUs. These expansions may encourage more property owners to construct new units.

However, Supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Zach Friend requested additional modifications. Here are some of the key points discussed during the August 10 meeting.

Request for Required Residency

First, Coonerty proposes that property owners should reside in either the primary residence or in the ADU. Without this requirement, more dwellings will turn into investment properties, thereby reducing the chance for first-time homeowners to compete in today’s challenging market.

First-time homeownership is already declining as California home prices rise, and allowing investors to maximize properties with ADU construction is likely to exacerbate this trend. Coonerty explained, “It may create some additional rental stock, but it does put [an added] burden on first-time homebuyers.”

With homelessness in the county already a concern, an increased number of investment properties and escalating prices will only worsen the situation. The hope is that ADUs will offer alternative housing to renters at a more affordable price.

Request for Design Standards

Currently, prefabricated ADUs are limited. Changes supported by Koenig would remove design standards, offering more options for property owners. Friend, who supported the idea of offering more options for adding ADUs to lots, suggested that some standards would need to be required.

He stated, “What I’m trying to [do] is [get] to a policy place where this doesn’t hold up projects, but we also don’t [want to] end up with something where an entire neighborhood is up in arms and … has to deal with [the situation] because they built something that doesn’t look anything like [what] would normally belong in the neighborhood.”

The goal is to find a balance between opportunity while maintaining aesthetics. Without aesthetics, properties are at risk of losing value.

To learn more about other requested revisions, you can view the meeting here.

Upcoming Discussions

ADU discussions will continue in Santa Cruz County; however, a specific date for continuance has not been set. Property owners interested in learning more about the current details of ADU regulations in the county can find more information here.

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