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Snohomish County loosens rules for add-on living spaces (ADUs)

SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Wanting to diversify housing stock, the County Council has loosened the rules to let rural homeowners add more places to live on their property.
It’s one step for adding affordable housing in low-density areas to chip away at the county’s widespread housing deficit.
Termed “Accessory Dwelling Units,” or ADUs, these can be either entirely separate buildings or specific living areas within an existing house.
The council unanimously voted to lighten permit burdens, among other changes, on Accessory Dwelling Units in a June 9 vote.
“Affordable housing is very difficult to get right now here in Snohomish County, especially starter homes,” Councilman Sam Low said by email. “Having options for our seniors who want to live close to family, but yet separate, and options for our young people who are trying to save but still need a place in transition can happen more easily with the passage of this ADU ordinance.”
Many residents have asked to remove a requirement to place the detached house within 100 feet of the main house and use the same driveway. A few said property owners should have the option for bigger distances in rural areas.
Low added a compromise to allow a detached ADU 100 feet away from the main house if wetlands or critical areas prevent building it closer.
The County Council will discuss whether to eliminate the 100-foot rule at a Tuesday, July 20 meeting of the county planning committee that starts at 10:30 a.m. The council also asked planners to develop a way to allow detached ADUs on smaller property lots, which will also be studied at the July 20 meeting.
Can you have an ADU? As it stands, a key determinate is the size and zoning of your property.
In the June 9 rule changes, not all rural areas are eligible to erect a separate “detached” building, but it appears people in most areas can attach a living space to their existing house.
The rules do not allow detached ADUs for properties sited on R-5 zoning, nor properties that are part of a “rural cluster subdivision.” These subdivisions are typified as an arranged group of homes in a pocket of rural land. R-5 zoning covers the unincorporated areas along Highway 9 and U.S. 2., plus Machias and north of Monroe.
People living in the Clearview Rural Commercial (CRC) zone can now build ADUs, a county zoning table shows.
The regulations restrict ADUs to a maximum floor area of 1,200 square feet, which is about the size of a modest doublewide mobile home.
Council Vice Chair Megan Dunn proposed removing a mandate that a parking space be built for any new ADU in more urban regions such as the footprints of urban growth areas (UGA) for cities, such as the city of Snohomish’s north UGA, as well as the unincorporated residential areas down the I-5 corridor. The council approved 4-1. Dunn said not everyone has cars, and the mandate adds a financial hurdle to creating an ADU. Council President Stephanie Wright dissented, saying that people in these areas still often own a car.
Dunn wrote in her monthly newsletter that removing the parking space regulation is important for upholding affordability and flexibility to support ADUs.
Previously, the county required a property owner to get a conditional permit under discretionary approval from county planners to build an ADU. The changes lift this restriction entirely.
The county says that from 2012 to 2019, it issued permits for just 100 ADUs in the rural area (3 attached and 97 detached). County legislators say they believe people will use these additional living spaces mainly for family members, and do not believe loosening the rules will spark an influx of ADU developments.




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