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ADU Vote Shows Why Our City Needs Our Help

Tallahassee City Comisssion (2017)

The Concept

Anyone who’s married has come to realize there’s usually more than one way of looking at a problem and what needs to be done about it.  Anyone who’s in a successful marriage knows that solving the problem usually involves some give and take, some collaboration, between the spouses. 

How does this pearl of marital bliss relate to Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and city government?  Read on my friends.

The Unfortunate Truth

Recently, the City Commission voted against protecting neighborhoods when it passed an update to the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance.  Betton Hills, along with five other in-town neighborhoods, voiced support for the ordinance revisions in general, but requested specific neighborhood protections be added, drawn from residents’ opinions and other cities ADU ordinances.  Growth Management (GM) staff rejected these protections, as did the City Commission.  Commissioner Ziffer proposed a collaborative process for the City and neighborhoods to work out their differences, but the Commission voted against this reasonable option.  It appears that our Commissioners, other than Ziffer, are too staff-dependent and NOT taking a leadership role.

The Background

In a recent neighborhood survey, Betton Hills residents voiced support for making it easier for homeowners to have ADUs as long as certain neighbor and neighborhood protections were included such as:  stronger management of rental properties, adequate off-street parking, and stronger neighbor noticing and code enforcement provisions.

BHNA leaders met with other neighborhoods and heard similar concerns.  We joined with these neighborhoods (Lafayette Park, Indianhead/Lehigh, Woodland Drives, Myers Park, and Glendale) to write specific recommendations for the revised ordinance.  We researched what cities around the nation did to protect neighborhoods as they expanded the use of ADUs.  We winnowed those down to practical recommendations. 

The Problem Arises

In an effort to be collaborative, we presented the recommendations to the GM staff responsible for drafting the ordinance.  Subsequently, they decided the neighborhood concerns were either inconsequential or outside the scope of GM functions.

The GM conclusion is not surprising given that they are oriented to individual situations; they don’t consider neighborhood effects (other than traffic and stormwater sometimes).  GM strives to keep property owners true to existing city ordinances whether they are individual homeowners, commercial builders, subdivision developers, etc. on a specific site. 

In neighborhoods, we have a different perspective.  We look at zoning/land use changes or ordinance revisions and ask, “What effect will it have on our homes and neighborhood?  What do we need to do now, before the change gets started, to minimize any neighborhood threats?”

Frequently, there’s a natural tension between the two perspectives.  Here’s one example regarding ADUs.  We recommended that the property owner be required to live in either the primary house or the ADU.  This is a common ADU requirement nationwide and for good reason:  the homeowner will be more likely to maintain the property.  Also, with the owner on-site, if there’s a rental involved, it ensures better tenant management.

Those are certainly worthwhile considerations for maintaining strong and safe neighborhoods like Betton Hills.  But, there’s a broader community development perspective too, especially for low income neighborhoods.  Without the owner-occupancy requirement and given the larger ADUs possible under the revised ordinance, an individual investor is incentivized to boost rental returns by operating two units on one property.  Having the potential for a greater return on the property makes it more expensive.  Making the property more expensive makes it more difficult for a person that simply wants to own a home and live in it to buy it.  The result:  less home ownership, more rentals, more crime, weaker neighborhoods. 

What was the GM staff’s perspective?  “Requiring owner occupancy raises concerns with the feasibility to enforce this requirement once the ADU has been constructed.”  I was counseled by people I respect not to be snarky in this article, but let me do so one time, but in a loving manner.  To me, that perspective is akin to stating:  “We can’t plant trees for shade in Cascades Park because they’ll get in the way of the mowers.”  I mean, who is supposed to be serving whom?  If resources are an issue, let’s work on addressing that rather than sweeping the issue under the carpet.

Shall the Twain Ever Meet?

At the City Commission meeting on the ADU ordinance revisions, we asked the City Commissioners to set up a consensus-building collaborative process to bring the two sides together, as was done successfully with Myers Park.

Commissioner Ziffer made a motion to continue the ordinance consideration to the next meeting to allow for that collaborative effort.  Commissioner Nancy Miller seconded the motion.  But, in the subsequent discussion, Commissioner Miller voiced her agreement with staff and essentially indicated there was no need for a collaborative process to resolve staff/neighborhoods differences.  Commissioners voted 3-2 against Ziffer’s motion and to approve the staff-revised ordinance as is.  Commissioners Gillum, Maddox, and Richardson voting approval.  (You can watch/listen to the discussion here.  The City Commission discussion starts at:  2:57:13 and runs to about 3:17:00.)

Leader, Leader, Where Art Thou?

For city leadership, too often the default position is to follow staff’s lead.  What’s needed is credence given to the neighborhood perspective.  In a successful marriage, as a once-popular song said, ” . . . it takes two, baby.”  In this case, that’s staff and neighborhoods. 

Other than Commissioner Ziffer, who has demonstrated an appreciation for the power of collaborative thinking, our Commissioners failed to support a consensus-building problem-solving process that would have strengthened ADU standards and provided better protections for all of our neighborhoods.

Collaboration seems to be a very hard concept for our local government – staff and commissioners – to embrace.  We need to help them get there.  As citizens and neighborhoods, we need to make clear we expect a seat at the development planning table . . . or we’ll be ready to show up and speak out en masse at city commission meetings.  We need to vote for neighborhood-enhancing candidates.  Better yet, let’s all work together to make collaboration the new normal.  After all, as in marriage, doesn’t mutual respect and compromise lead to a lot more fun than ignoring or simmering disagreements?


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