When Marie Allison’s autistic son Chris Riddell was about to graduate high school, Allison was faced with a common problem for parents of children with disabilities: Where should her son live?
Thanks to a state grant for people with disabilities, Allison was able to remodel and create a separate apartment attached to her home for Riddell in 1996.
But there was a problem, she soon learned.
Lexington zoning ordinances do not allow houses with two kitchens in single-family neighborhoods. Riddell’s apartment was illegal. Pleas to city lawyers to allow an exception because Riddell has a disability fell on deaf ears, but she eventually got permission from the city’s Board of Adjustment for the apartment.
The board’s approval, though, came with many restrictions. No one but Riddell can live in the apartment. It can not be rented to a stranger. If Riddell moves out, the second kitchen must be removed.
“I have many friends with children with disabilities who would like to do the same thing,” Allison said. “But they can’t right now.”
That’s why Allison is backing a new proposal that would allow granny flats, mother-in-law suites, detached tiny houses and other accessory dwelling units in residential areas of Fayette County without special permission from city planning bodies.
The public is invited to weigh in on the proposal at 6 p.m. on Aug. 20 at the Lexington Senior Center. The Urban County Planning Commission is tentatively scheduled to take its first vote on the proposal at its Sept. 26 meeting.
The proposal has been in the works for more than a year. Planning staff received a grant from AARP to develop a homeowner’s guide to building accessory dwelling units in addition to hosting several public meetings to discuss the proposal.
Kristy Stambaugh, director of the city’s aging and disability services, said the city’s senior services commission has pushed planning staff to change the city’s ordinances to allow for accessory dwelling units for more than a year.
“People want to stay in their homes longer,” Staumbaugh said, and accessory dwelling units allow for either a caregiver to live on site with an elderly couple or allow a family to have an elderly relative in a unit attached or near their home.
When Stambaugh was in college she rented an apartment attached to the home of an elderly couple.
“I was there eight years and I became their caregiver as my landlords got older,” Stambaugh said.
Chris Taylor, a planner with the city’s long-range planning department, said the proposal to allow accessory dwelling units was developed after looking at best practices from cities such as Portland, Oregon, which has allowed the units for years.
The proposal only allows one accessory dwelling unit per lot. The maximum allowed size for an attached unit is 800 square feet, but the unit can not be bigger than the original house. In some cases, depending on the size of the house, the maximum could be 625 square feet. An additional parking space for the unit will not be required unless the home is in the infill and redevelopment area, which includes much of downtown. Infill and redevelopment areas have minimum parking requirements.
If an owner wants to build an accessory dwelling unit for a short-term rental — such as an Airbnb — the owner must live on the property. An owner is not required to live on the property for a long-term rental.
Taylor said the ordinance is designed to create more long-term housing. That’s why owner occupancy is required for short-term rentals but not long-term rentals. The city also wants to be consistent. Other long-term rentals such as apartments and town homes do not require the owner to live on the property.
Detached units must be located behind the rear wall of the home and must be at least three feet from the property line, which is more than the current set back of 18 inches required for other accessory buildings, such as a shed.
Taylor said other cities that allow accessory dwelling units typically see more attached units — such as conversions of garages, basements and attics. It’s generally cheaper to renovate than build new space.
Not everyone is sure the proposal is a good idea.
Walter Gaffield, president of the Fayette County Neighborhood Council, said some neighborhoods are leery of allowing accessory dwelling units. The neighborhood council, a neighborhood umbrella group, has not taken an official stance on the proposal.
“It’s going to be allowed by right. That means a neighbor could simply build it without any public participation or any neighborhood participation,” Gaffield said. “The current draft proposal does not include any architectural standards.”
Taylor said architectural standards — what types of materials can be used and how — are not part of any other zoning ordinance. There is no prohibition on types of materials used to build an apartment complex, for example.
“We have a manual that has best practices,” Taylor said. “There are standards for site lay out.”
Not having the owner of the property live on site for long-term rentals has also raised some red flags, Gaffield said.
“There is very poor enforcement right now on what is a long-term and a short-term rental,” Gaffield said.
In Nashville, the city hired a private investigator and found 1,000 short-term rental units that were not registered with the city. The Tennessee city eventually increased the number of code enforcement officers to go after illegal short-term rental units.
A 2018 survey by Portland State University of owners of Portland’s accessory dwelling units showed that approximately 53 percent of the units were used as a primary residence, which could include a long-term rental, but more than a third — 37 percent— were short-term rentals.
The goal is to create additional long-term housing, not Airbnbs, Gaffield said. “There is nothing wrong with making money. The issue is when you have a lot of rental units in one neighborhood, it can turn into a State Street or Elizabeth Street near the University of Kentucky.”
The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council is expected to soon revisit city ordinances on short-term rentals soon. There is no owner-occupancy requirement for short-term rentals in that policy. If passed, the accessory dwelling unit ordinances would be more restrictive than the city’s current policy, Taylor said.
Gaffield said he has also heard concerns that accessory dwelling units will be concentrated in mostly poorer, downtown neighborhoods, including neighborhoods close to UK, which scrambled this summer to find enough rooms and beds for incoming freshman this fall.
“Many newer neighborhoods that have been built in the past 20 years have deed restrictions that do not allow accessory dwelling units,” Gaffield said.
Taylor, though, said existing restrictions already limit the number of non-related people living in one home to four.
The number of student apartment complexes near UK has exploded in the past decade, making it unlikely that accessory dwelling units will be built solely for student housing, he said.
Taylor said the city wants to hear more about what the public thinks about the proposal. For those that can’t attend the public hearing on Aug. 20 or the planning commission meeting on Sept. 26, online comments can be submitted at https://www.lexingtonky.gov/accessory-dwelling-units-proposal.