Allowing ‘Granny Flats,’ tiny homes could cause havoc in areas near UK

Marie Allison had an accessory dwelling unit built for her son on the back of her home in Lexington, Ky.
Marie Allison had an accessory dwelling unit built for her son on the back of her home in Lexington, Ky. rhermens@herald-leader.com

The new proposed Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) ordinance from Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government has good intentions – increased population density in the urban core would decrease pressure on the Urban Services Boundary, protecting our rural areas, while allowing aging parents to live independently in their “Granny Flats.”

But 30 years living in Lexington has convinced me that, as a community we lack the staffing, ordinances and the willpower to protect our existing neighborhoods from poorly designed development.

The neighborhoods that will be most adversely impacted by ADUs will be those surrounding the University of Kentucky. I lived in the Elizabeth Street neighborhood south of Waller for about 10 years, and I saw all manner of ugly, cheap construction in an R-1 zoned neighborhood. State, University and Crescent Streets were destroyed in just a few years by get-rich-quick absentee landlords building vinyl box additions for student rentals.

Many UK-area property owners will now see another opportunity to make an extra $500 per month by plopping an ADU in their backyard and renting to students. To get a good return on their investment, they will not be building a brick building - they will buy a tiny home on Amazon, or one of the log cabin-style storage sheds that are sold on roadsides across Kentucky for less than $10,000.

These little log cabins are cute, but since they are technically sold as storage buildings, they are not required to meet any type of building codes – they have no fire-retardant properties, no insulation, plumbing or electrical, and they reek of formaldehyde (a cancer-causing chemical found in OSB chipboard). They are set on concrete blocks, so they are vulnerable to high winds – remember the tornado that ripped through Masterson Station, tearing off the roofs of many houses, because the homebuilders didn’t install the 50-cent “hurricane clips?”

Storage sheds are unsafe for human habitation, but you can find them being used as weekend rental cabins – and long-term living for the destitute – throughout Kentucky.

Handy Andy homeowners will simply run a thick extension cord from the garage to their backyard ADU so that Building Inspection doesn’t get notified. Add a composting toilet, a waterline from the house and some paneling from Lowe’s, and presto – student rental! Or Pouting House, She-Shed, Man Cave. I think we can also expect to see ADUs made from shipping containers or pallets, canvas yurts, and even some tree houses. Cool! But it won’t be good for the neighborhoods. None of these things will hold up, except possibly the shipping containers, and 20 years from now we will look at all of the rot and wonder what our city leaders could have been thinking.

The proposed regulation states that the property must be owner-occupied for short-term rental, i.e. Air BnBs. That is a huge loophole. What happens when the owner lies, or simply moves out? Where does the ordinance require non-conforming ADUs to be torn down? Or do we just say “oh, well?” The proposed ordinance lacks teeth and penalties.

In other cities, ordinances require posting – in a prominent place – the building permit, but we do not have this requirement in Lexington, so no one will know if an ADU meets building codes or not. This must change. We must require that all building permits be prominently posted. It is unreasonable to ask community members to challenge their neighbors to produce a building permit.

Lastly, there must be an exclusion zone for ADUs around the University of Kentucky and Transylvania. I propose a three-mile radius.

Dave Cooper of Lexington is a long-time community activist

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