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California has made it far easier to build accessory dwelling units and people are making use of those relaxed laws....

As Santa Cruz County continues to search for solutions to its housing affordability crisis, a proposal to encourage more tiny homes in the county is moving along — and county officials will seek the public’s input at a virtual community meeting later this month.

Among the key issues moving forward? How to differentiate tiny homes on wheels from recreational vehicles, and how to develop a structure for assessing property taxes and fees.

County staff on this week briefed the Housing Advisory Commission on potential updates to the county’s tiny home policy, as well as on proposed changes to Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) regulations.

ADUs, sometimes called granny flats, are independent living units that are associated with a primary dwelling. The county’s zoning code has long allowed ADUs, but county staff are working on updates to regulations to further simplify and streamline ADU approvals — and to align the county’s guidelines with those released by state officials.

Tiny homes, which are built to resemble a typical cottage or bungalow, are typically defined as ranging from 100 to 400 square feet in size, whereas ADUs range in size from 150 to 1,200 square feet. Tiny homes generally either have wheels attached, or, like ADUs, are built on foundations.

Supervisors in January asked county staff to explore options to update local regulations to explicitly define and encourage tiny homes in the hopes of boosting the county’s stock of affordable housing.

Under the current rules, tiny homes are allowed in Santa Cruz County, but only if they’re on permanent foundations. The county’s code considers tiny homes on wheels to be recreational vehicles, which means inhabitants can only permanently live in them within designated RV parks.

“So the board has indicated that tiny homes, either on wheels or on foundations, should be incorporated into our local code to be appropriate as either primary dwellings or as ADUs,” County Planner Daisy Allen told the Housing Advisory Commission.

County staff are expected to present policy development ideas related to tiny homes to supervisors at their meeting next Tuesday. “We foresee that the devil will be in the details regarding tiny homes on wheels,” Allen said. “We will need to clearly distinguish tiny homes from RVs, and we’ll need to think about whether we will allow tiny homes that are temporarily parked to contribute to the county’s housing production numbers.”

The Housing Advisory Committee met virtually on March 3, 2021.
County staff briefed the Housing Advisory Commission on potential updates to the county’s tiny home policy, as well as proposed changes to the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) regulations. Credit: Patrick Riley/Lookout Santa Cruz

First District Supervisor Manu Koenig has been a leading advocate legalizing tiny homes on wheels as a way to help solve the county’s lack of affordable housing. A question that comes up a lot with tiny homes, Koenig acknowledged in an interview with Lookout on Thursday, is whether developing a permit system for them would be akin to permitting RVs.

“And the answer is ‘no,’” Koenig said. “There’s a number of ways that a tiny home is defined, that makes it clear that it is not an RV,” he added, noting that those distinctions include the building materials used, among other things.

Size also could be a factor in how the county might go about designing regulations to distinguish them from RVs.

Movable tiny homes, set on chassis to drive them around, can be between 8.5 feet and 13.5 feet wide, but typically fall into the 8.5-foot range because they need to be able to fit on highways, according to Koenig. They are also usually registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Other questions county staff are considering include how to treat a tiny home on wheels that is owned separately from the property where it’s located; what utility hookups would be required; and how property taxes and other fees associated with such homes would be assessed.

“At some point, where does it become a taxable thing for property taxes as well as, you know, fees and county permits I mean you have to have a real clear line there,” said Bryan Chambers, vice-chair of the commission.

Chambers said that from a real estate point of view, one issue that would have to be fleshed out is when does a tiny home convey with the land it sits on, and when does it not.

“And where’s the dividing line whether that’s a seller choice or that’s (an) obligation based on county permit records and such,” he said. “So we definitely need a definition to delineate at what point does it become a part of the property from a building perspective, versus a personal asset of either the seller or a third party.”

ADUs — considered another tool to battle the housing crunch — have been increasingly cropping up since the recession, Allen said. In 2018, the county updated its regulations to further reduce barriers to ADU development and to comply with new state laws. In January 2020 when additional ADU state laws went into effect, the county quickly updated its code again.

Now county staff are looking to simplify and clarify the ADU code to make it easier to use. Staff are considering a host of policy questions, ranging from how many ADUs to allow per property to whether parking requirements should be relaxed in the coastal zone.

Commissioner Reed Geisreiter said he liked the idea of including tiny homes in the ADU ordinance to avoid having to have a separate set of rules for tiny homes.

“Whatever staff can do to kind of make sure that we fit these in the realm of the ADU rules, because there are relaxed rules as we know,” he said. “There’s some expedited permit processing, some fee relief and such. So if we could fit this into that regulatory scheme I think it makes a ton of sense. And it also comes then with the zoning requirements that I think protect the community in terms of floor-area ratio, setback, parking, all that sort of thing.”

With the issue scheduled to come before county planning commissioners later this spring and county staff expected to come back to the housing advisory commission with a draft ordinance in May, commissioners did not give a formal recommendation Wednesday.

A community meeting regarding the proposed changes to the ADU and tiny home regulations is scheduled for March 16.

Follow Patrick Riley on: Twitter. Patrick Riley is Lookout Santa Cruz’s county government accountability reporter. He comes to Lookout from Florida, where he covered Collier County government for the...