Accessory dwelling unit as a detached cottage

A detached cottage accessory dwelling unit adjacent to a home.

Fears that Colorado Springs neighborhoods will be overtaken by add-on housing appear to be overblown, based on a survey of other Colorado cities where it has been approved.

The Colorado Springs City Council is cautiously considering a proposal that would allow the construction of accessory dwelling units in predominantly single-family residential areas, often called ‘densification.’ Proponents say the ordinance would increase density and alleviate some of the problems of urban sprawl that have come to characterize Colorado Springs’ growth. Others have raised concerns about add-on housing causing more traffic problems and changing the character of the city’s historic neighborhoods.

Similar ordinances have been enacted across the state and city planners say it can be managed here as well without it becoming overwhelming.

Denver, which planners say is still rolling out changes that began in 2010, sees dozens of permit requests each year, rather than the thousands some fear.

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Brandon Shaver, associate city planner for the city and county of Denver, said staff dealt with neighborhoods individually to see if accessory dwelling units were needed or wanted in the area.

About a quarter of the city’s single-family residential lots were eligible for an accessory dwelling unit, Shaver said, and concerns were similar to those being heard in Colorado Springs.

Only a few property owners have the money or inclination to build onto their homes or add a separate dwelling, Shaver said.

For the most part, the fears were unfounded and it’s been received well in Denver, said Shaver and Laura Swartz, communications director for the city’s Department of Community Planning and Development.

“They’re definitely seen as a way to gently increase the density of a neighborhood without significantly impacting the character of the neighborhood, Swartz said.

In a city where the cost of housing has skyrocketed beyond the means of many, ADUs are seen as potentially a more affordable option to single-family homes or upscale apartment building. For homeowners, it can be a way to supplement their income, especially for the elderly, Shave said.

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Denver requires that property owners must live where they are building an ADU, Shaver noted, which prevents developers and landlords from buying large tracts of land, building the units and edging existing residents out of the market.

As proposed, Colorado Springs’ ordinance would have the same requirement for ADUs, while also requiring that they be built as an extension of a home, rather than as a standalone building.

Denver’s expansion took off slowly with just two ADU permits issued the first year, six the next and nine in 2012, Swartz said. As of 2018, there have been 204 permits issued citywide.

“We’re doing like 40 or 50 ADU permits a year now, which is not substantial,” Swartz said.

Officials are considering expanding eligibility to all of Denver’s single-family residential lots, Shaver said.

Nor has the additional construction and inspections overburdened the city, code enforcement officers, according to Shaver and Swartz, as some in Colorado Springs have predicted.

Durango’s experience has been similar to Denver’s, said city planner Vicki Vandegrift.

“It’s something that we don’t feel has caused any problems,” she said. “They’re expensive to build, so we didn’t find a big rush in the neighborhoods.”

ADUs have been allowed in some older Durango neighborhoods since 2014, “And then just this year we adopted ADUs in our remaining single-family lots,” Vandegrift said.

The first ordinance legalized about 300 accessory dwelling units which already existed. Since then, the city has permitted about 25 new units, she said.

A zoning code update approved in Aurora last year allowed ADUs in a relatively small portion of the city, said spokeswoman Julie Patterson. So far, only one permit has been issued.

Colorado Springs City Councilman Andy Pico, who opposes the current language of the ordinance, said he does not believe a blanket approach is appropriate.

“If you’ve got a single-family residential zoned area, single family means single family,” he said. “That means you don’t get to turn your house into a duplex and have two families.”

Pico said he would rather consider allowing the units for incoming single-family lots rather than existing ones.

While Pico said he doesn’t anticipate thousands of accessory dwelling units would be built, the city’s code enforcement staff is already overworked .

Mitch Hammes, head of city code enforcement, said in an email Colorado Springs doesn’t track the number of accessory dwelling units that exist already, but there appear to be few problems with them.

Sometimes, property owners illegally convert a part of their home into a new residence, Hammes said.

“I estimate that of the over 10,000 complaints we receive each year, less than 20 complaints fall into this category,” he wrote.

Councilwoman Jill Gaebler said the shortage of affordable housing in Colorado Springs makes ADUs worth trying even if only a small number are built.

“It is one tool in the toolbox to build affordable housing to increase density in a very gentle way … and every tool is needed to solve this problem,” Gaebler said. “You’re not going to see much development, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to promote this type of land use change.”

Gaebler believes that fears of adverse impacts to neighborhoods are overblown.

“Would it be bad to have maybe a few of our homes in our neighborhoods become duplexes?” she asked. “Is that really going to create some sort of parking issue or traffic issue? No it’s not.”

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