An ADU in Santa Cruz County.
An ADU in Santa Cruz County.
(Courtesy Santa Cruz County Planning Office)
Government

The ADU, tiny home push: Concept of pre-approved plans, ’30-minute’ permit process move forward unanimously

The march toward ADUs and tiny homes becoming more viable options to add to Santa Cruz County’s housing inventory continued at Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting.

With an eye toward trying to make housing more affordable to more people, Santa Cruz County leaders on Tuesday moved forward with measures intended to allow for more tiny homes and speed up the permitting process for so-called accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

Though some questions and details still need to be ironed out, supervisors unanimously voted to take the next steps on a proposal, spearheaded by Supervisor Manu Koenig and Chairperson Bruce McPherson, that looks to encourage more tiny homes in the county.

They also moved along another proposal by the two supervisors to make pre-approved ADU plans available for residents via the county’s planning department website this summer.

“I think we all understand by now the need to increase housing stock and to look at different options to do so,” Koenig said. “Using a pre-approved, permit-ready plan essentially will make it quicker, easier and more affordable for people to build ADUs.”

Similar programs have been successfully implemented in other communities across the state, including the county of San Diego, according to Koenig. The idea is for applicants who bring a site plan, energy use plan and a pre-approved, county-created ADU plan to “walk out in 30 minutes” with a permit, he said.

Travis Saenz of Adventure Cabins, a San Bernardino company that makes tiny homes.
Travis Saenz of Adventure Cabins, a San Bernardino company that makes tiny homes.
(Kevin Painchaud - Lookout Santa Cruz)

The city of Seaside, Koenig explained, has a “choose your own adventure option” that allows residents to essentially customize a base model. Savings just on architecture and design work can average between $10,000 and $15,000 for an applicant, he said.

Under the proposal, pre-approved plans would be considered “permit-ready” once approved by a building official and all relevant departments and would be exempt from permit review fees. The pre-approved plans would be made available on the planning department’s website where residents could download them for free.

Sets of pre-approved ADU plans could be on the planning department’s website before the end of June should the proposal move forward this spring. Planning officials are working alongside the county’s Office of Response, Recovery and Resiliency, which has been working on a similar effort specifically for CZU Lightning Complex Fire victims.

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Tiny home proposal moved ahead

Under the county’s current rules, tiny homes are only allowed if they’re on permanent foundations, while those on wheels are considered to be recreational vehicles, which means inhabitants can only permanently live in them within designated RV parks.

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Koenig and McPherson’s proposal seeks to change that by allowing tiny homes whether they’re on wheels or on foundations.

Although tiny homes are not defined in the county’s code, they are generally considered to be between 100 and 400 square feet. Santa Cruz County currently allows tiny homes on foundations that are as small as 150 square feet.

Supervisor Zach Friend said he is in favor of the general concept, but cautioned that details on the proposal will need to be worked out, including how property taxes would be assessed for tiny homes on wheels.

“Overall I’m definitely supportive of the program but these details are really going to matter,” he said.

The proposal on tiny homes is slated to be discussed at a community meeting March 16, before it comes before the planning commission and housing advisory commission. The item is expected to return to the board of supervisors in June.

County staff plans to explore more time-intensive policy changes related to tiny homes — including concerning tiny home villages or tiny homes that are completely off the grid — later this year.

For Juko Holiday, a small business owner in Ben Lomond and a CZU Lightning Complex Fire survivor, her tiny home was an “incredible option.”

“Because I was living in my tiny home while I was working on a building permit that expired, we ran out of money, and then everything burned down, I was able to open a business and put my resources into the community creating jobs as opposed to being kind of forced to invest in real estate,” she told supervisors.

While tiny homes are often associated with people who are currently unsheltered, Holiday said the tiny home reach goes beyond that population. “They are an amazing option for people across income levels,” she said.