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Should Los Angeles ban ADUs in hillside neighborhoods like Highland Park?

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Some city officials say it’s too dangerous

Hillside homes from above
Roughly 28 percent of LA’s single-family homes are in hillside areas.
Trekandshoot | Shutterstock

Thanks to a new California law, more homeowners in Los Angeles are building accessory dwelling units—otherwise known as granny flats, in-law units, or back houses.

But it may be hard to find one with a hilltop view.

City officials are considering new rules that would prevent property owners from building ADUs in hillside areas.

Fire danger and the impacts of construction on “fragile roads and sensitive hillsides” makes ADUs inappropriate in these areas, says Emma Howard, senior planning deputy for Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu.

She told the city’s Planning Commission on Thursday that the councilmember is in “strong support” of a blanket ban on constructing ADUs in any hillside community.

A hillside ban is just one element of draft ADU regulations that city officials are weighing—and some commissioners don’t support it.

“If Councilmember Ryu is going to come here and say, ‘I don’t want to have that; it’s not safe,’ I’ve got to disagree,” said Commissioner Renee Dake Wilson.

She says ADUs would have limited effects on traffic or safety in hilly areas with wide streets and access to public transit.

Dake Wilson also pointed out that the city’s own ADU pilot project—a test unit being constructed in Highland Park—would likely be banned under the proposed rules. But Highland Park wouldn’t be the only area homeowners would have trouble building.

The ban would affect roughly 28 percent of all single-family homes in the city, according to planners, preventing a huge swath of residents from constructing an additional unit on their property.

State leaders have touted ADUs as a simple solution to California’s housing shortage.

According to the planning department, more than 3,000 ADUs have been permitted in the city of Los Angeles between January 2017, when the new state law took effect, and March 2018—and plenty more are on the way.

Planner Matt Glesne told the commission Thursday that the department now receives between 300 and 350 ADU permit applications per month.

The new law simplifies the process by which ADUs are approved and prevents cities from banning them outright. But local leaders can still place some restrictions on their construction, as LA is now looking to do.

A hillside ban might not matter too much. Glesne told the commission that, so far, planners have received only a small number of permit applications for new ADUs in hillside areas.

“We looked at the impact of this based on the last year and a half and recognize this is only going to affect a small percentage of the permits that we’ve seen,” he said.

But commission President David Ambroz was also critical of the hillside ban, arguing that it put an unfair burden on flatter, and often less affluent, communities to support most of the new housing ADUs will provide.

“What’s being proposed here is not in my backyard, and my backyard has a nice view and yours doesn’t,” said Ambroz Thursday. “That’s not equitable.”

The commission asked planners to investigate which particular hillside areas are most prone to fire and other dangers, and which would be safer for new development. The planning department will report back later this year.

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