The Northfield City Council was on board with the Planning Commission’s proposal to relax the city’s rules on accessory dwellings, but some members had questions about the specifics.
At its Jan. 8 meeting, the council voted 5-2 to accept the first reading of an ordinance establishing new rules related to the dwellings, commonly referred to as ADUs. If OK’d on a second reading, the changes would make the options for accessory dwellings in Northfield more flexible.
Mayor Rhonda Pownell and Councilor David DeLong voted against, though both expressed support for the general idea. Pownell said she had concerns over the potential size of the accessory dwellings, building requirements, and the effect on Northfield’s rental ordinance.
“I have strong enough concerns that I don’t feel good about this at all,” she said.
Accessory dwellings are self-contained living units located on the same property as an existing home — attached or detached. ADUs can include apartments above garages, basement apartments, structures attached to a home and freestanding structures like tiny homes.
In Northfield, the dwellings are allowed, but only as part of detached garages. City ordinances state that the structure, garage included, can be no larger than 864 square feet. This makes it almost impossible to add anything but carriage houses above the garage, which was the original intent, according to City Planner Scott Tempel.
The Planning Commission, in four meetings over eight months, agreed on a new definition for the dwellings, allowing residents to create the units beyond just the carriage house model. The proposed ordinance would allow the dwellings to be located anywhere on a property with a primary residential dwelling, as long as they don’t exceed size limitations and are properly hooked up to sewer and water.
The commission landed on a 1,000-square-foot maximum footprint for an accessory dwelling or less than 50 percent the size of the primary dwelling. That was the most notable point of contention among the council. Pownell noted that, if a primary dwelling is 5,000 square feet, the accessory dwelling could be 2,500 square feet, which she considered a small house.
“I don’t think that is an accessory unit,” she said.
There was also confusion in the proposed ordinance’s wording — whether it meant the foundational square footage or the total square footage.
Councilor Erica Zweifel said she would like clarity in the language, but, differing from Pownell, she wasn’t in favor of limiting the size below the proposed 1,000 feet or 50 percent. Tempel and city staff will look to clear up the language ahead of the second reading.
In addition to the issue of size, Pownell expressed concern about having no requirements related to design, aesthetics, materials, etc, other than Minnesota building code standards. She said some might put up low-quality structures or ones that clash with their surroundings.
Most other councilors, though, seemed comfortable with the flexibility, noting that residents need to have creative license if the city is going to address its affordable housing problem. Northfield Housing and Redevelopment Chair and Rice County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Dayna Norvold echoed those sentiments.
“… we don’t know all the answers now, but we have to give some room and time to be creative to figure all that out,” she said. “People need housing now. As with all things, this is not final; it will be revisited.”
The final concern, shared by several on the council, was whether the proposed ADU ordinance conflicted with the established rental ordinance. The rental ordinance holds that only 20 percent of the units on a particular block can be rented out.
Councilors were unsure if accessory dwellings were intended to be exempt from that rule under the proposed ordinance. City Attorney Chris Hood said the language in the proposed ordinance would not make them exempt from the rule.
In an interview Thursday, Planning Commission Chair Will Schroeer said the group wanted the exemption.
“This is different than most rentals, in that this is in someone’s backyard, and they’re going to have a different relationship with those renters than regular renters,” he said. “The goal was to open up Northfielders’ creativity and allow them to put their property to a use the city wants.”