VANCOUVER — It’s an age-old question. When does my rights as a property owner infringe upon your rights as a property owner? When there is a conflict, whose rights should take precedent?
Members of the Vancouver City Council wrestled with those questions this week as they voted on an ordinance updating standards for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in the city. To do so, the councilors were forced to weigh the choice of relaxing the standards, making it easier for property owners to create ADUs in the city, which opponents argued could decrease their property value, quality of life and ability to park.
In the end, councilors completed what essentially was a multi-year process by voting 4-3 to approve the ordinance. Mayor Tim Leavitt and councilors Alishia Topper, Ty Stober and Bart Hansen voted in favor of the ordinance. Councilors Anne McEnerny-Ogle, Jack Burkman and Bill Turlay voted against.
The ordinance removed a previous requirement in the city requiring ADUs to provide on-site, off-street parking. The ordinance also removed the requirement that the property owner must live in one of the units and relaxed the requirements for the size of the ADUs. The ordinance also relaxed design and appearance requirements.
According to Bryan Snodgrass, principal planner for the city of Vancouver, requirements for ADUs hadn’t changed in the city since 2004. The proposal to relax restrictions on ADUs was a recommendation of the 2015 Affordable Housing Task Force — of which Leavitt, McEnerny-Ogle and Topper were participants.
Members of the council and the citizens who spoke on the issue at Monday’s meeting were quite conflicted on the changes, struggling to weigh the arguments on each side of the conversation.
Stephanie Turlay, wife of Councilor Bill Turlay, shared her husband’s opposition to the changes.
“I do not see that the city has any business changing the integrity of neighborhoods as they now stand,’’ Stephanie Turlay told the council. “The ADU situation has worked up to now without any interference or input from the city … What do you think is going to happen to property values if you allow these neighborhoods to go down hill and there is a very good chance that they will.’’
Dick Malin, of the Central Park Neighborhood Association, said that members of his neighborhood association “voted 100 percent against the idea of permitting such bogus duplexes in our neighborhood. You have an obligation to address the problem of affordable housing, but you have a great responsibility to protect the quality of life for residents, citizens in this community.’’
Chris Dickinsen, who lives in the Carter Park neighborhood, said, “I’m actually not against them (ADUs), but I’m against two of the items … If you’re going to subject your neighbor to an ADU, you need to live in that neighborhood … I really think we should look at the parking. There just is not enough parking in our historic neighborhoods.’’
In response to an inquiry from Mayor Leavitt, Snodgrass reported that there had been 65 permits for ADUs in the city over the past 17 years. Opponents of the changes testified that number could dramatically increase if the requirements were relaxed.
“We’ve heard concerns expressed that this is going to degrade our neighborhoods and parking is a huge issue and the value of properties is going to go down,’’ Leavitt said. “But, 65 (permits) in 17 years that we know of doesn’t suggest to me that there’s been a dramatic cause and effect in our neighborhoods.
“I’m less inclined to believe that this is going to cause a mass drop in property values, that there is going to be a mass run on building ADUs,’’ Leavitt said. “I don’t think any of the evidence we have seen from other communities suggests that is going to happen at all. In fact, property values in Portland have shot through the roof and in Seattle they’ve shot through the roof and in Vancouver, BC, they’ve shot through the roof.’’
As far as potential parking issues, Topper said that should be the city’s problem and not one for individual business or property owners.
“I think instead of placing the burden of parking on homeowners, we need to be looking at solutions of the city for the overall downtown area,’’ said Topper, who also agreed with Leavitt’s assessment of the downside of relaxing the requirements. “From all the research I have done, I don’t believe this is going to have a disproportionate impact on our citizens.’’
Councilor Turlay firmly disagreed.
“The parking in my area is very critical it seems like on a regular basis,’’ he said. “If one of my neighbors were to build a unit on each side of me, I wouldn’t know where we would park so I’m very concerned about that.
“I don’t want to live next to them (ADUs),’’ Councilor Turlay said. “I’m speaking out for people who have a big investment in their home and don’t want and ADU next door to them.’’
For Councilor Burkman, the owner-occupied element was critical.
“I believe we’re coming in the backdoor into our land use planning processes and saying these single-family neighborhoods, we’re going to convert them to multiple family,’’ Burkman said. “There is a need for ADUs, but I think we’re going too far when we say there is no owner-occupied requirement. I think as a matter of policy for this city, we’re going down the wrong road.’’
Councilor McEnerny-Ogle has an ADU at her Vancouver residence.
“Right now, we are struggling when we want to park our own vehicle when we want to do a yard cleanup,’’ McEnerny-Ogle said. “I don’t have space in front of my house or on the side of my house Monday through Friday. Parking is a problem. The owner-occupied piece doesn’t bother me too much. I think it’s the parking piece that is bothering me and I’m struggling with that.’’
Councilor Bart Hansen said he lived in an ADU while a student at Washington State University.
“This comes down to property rights for me,’’ Hansen said. “When I look at it from that aspect, a citizen has a right to earn income from their property.
“Is this going to come with everything I want it to come with? No, it’s not,’’ Hansen said. “There are some issues I’m looking at and not overly pleased with but I’m going to take it from the whole and I think the whole is going to be a very positive thing for Vancouver.’’
Councilor Stober agreed with Hansen.
“I also believe this is a property rights issue,’’ Stober said.
I can appreciate how the citizens who spoke at Monday’s meeting and the members of the council debated and agonized over this issue. I sympathize with a property owner who is negatively impacted by something that goes on at his neighbor’s property.
But, in the end, I believe there are enough laws and codes in place to protect that from happening, in most cases. When forced to make the difficult decisions between the rights of one property owner versus another, I think the members of the Vancouver City Council got it right. Error on the side of protecting an individual’s right to do with his or her property as they see fit.