Mar Vista resident Jake Henning was excited to hear about a new California law aimed at making it easier for homeowners to construct accessory dwelling units.
In Los Angeles, changing regulations and legal uncertainty had for years made it frustrating and confusing to build these smaller structures, otherwise known as back houses, granny flats, or in-law units.
Eager to convert an unused garage into a formal living space, Henning contacted an architecture firm, which helped him draw up plans for the space and obtain permits to get it built.
Everything seemed to be going fine—until August, when a Department of Water and Power inspector showed up.
“While the city was fine with the plans, LADWP denied the submission,” Henning tells Curbed.
Across the city, hundreds of ADU projects like Henning’s have been stalled or blocked entirely due to one simple issue: overhead power lines. Statewide regulations require new buildings to sit 5 to 6 horizontal feet from the aerial path of a power line, so that if the line breaks it doesn’t fall on top of a structure.
“We want to work with the public, but we have to maintain these clearances for the safety of the public and for our workers,” says Dan Barnes, director of power transmission and distribution at DWP.
Since the new state rules went into effect in January 2017, the pace of ADU construction in Los Angeles has accelerated rapidly. More than 7,700 property owners have submitted plans to build ADUs as of September, according to the city’s planning department. By comparison, the city received just 536 permit applications in the two years prior to 2017.
State and local officials have touted ADUs as a simple way to address the state’s shortage of affordable housing, and even to house some of the 31,000 homeless residents living in the city of Los Angeles.
But in LA, power lines that connect with residences often run above or directly adjacent to backyard areas where ADUs could otherwise be constructed.
Many also run close to existing garages, like Henning’s, which were built before these requirements existed.
One of the key features of the new state ADU law is that it allows for garages and other structures that are already built to be converted for residential use. But older garages were generally built close to the edges of properties, where power lines are likely to be overhead.
In Henning’s case, a DWP inspector alerted him that in order for his ADU project to move forward, he’d have to either move the garage about four feet from the property line or shave off the same amount of the existing building.
“It was a massive surprise,” he says. “Nowhere along the line did anyone think that the power lines would be an issue.”
According to an October report from the planning department, at least 800 ADU applications have been forwarded to DWP because of similar issues. Power lines have affected “potentially one in every five to six permit applications,” the report says.
Because the power line easement regulations are part of state law, DWP is not able to make exceptions or grant waivers. If a planned ADU crosses into the buffer zone around power lines, even by a few inches, the project must be redesigned or it cannot move forward.
If a power line should fall, says Barnes, it’s important that people be as far away as possible from the cable to avoid accidental contact.
“We’re talking about 5,000 volts,” he says. “If someone goes out and touches that line, they could be severely injured or killed.”
But to Henning, the required easement around the power line seems arbitrary and overly cautious.
“If it’s that much of a risk,” he says, “we shouldn’t have above-grade power lines in Los Angeles.”
Barnes says that, since the new state law went into effect, DWP has struggled to keep up with ADU permit applications forwarded by the building and safety department.
“I don’t believe we knew that we’d get this many,” he says, adding that the division of DWP that handles building permits is adding staff to “get on these faster.”
Earlier this year, state lawmakers considered a bill that would have cleared utility providers from liability over ADU-related property damage, potentially leaving DWP out of the ADU permitting process and allowing projects like Henning’s to move forward.
The senate never voted on the bill, and it’s now listed in the Legislature’s inactive file.
Barring future legislation, many homeowners hoping to develop ADUs may have to rethink their plans or reduce the scale of projects. Barnes says DWP is doing outreach to make property owners aware of the power line issue earlier in the application process.
“The sooner they contact us the better,” he says.