Housing limited by density fears in high-risk areas

02/24/2021

Supervisors paved the way last month for the creation of more affordable housing in West Marin, despite concerns that increased density will slow wildfire evacuations. 

New state regulations for accessory dwelling units seek to reduce permitting and building barriers, such as by expediting the review process and relaxing property line setbacks. Marin was forced to adopt the rules in an urgency ordinance a year ago; at a January meeting, supervisors formally adopted them, with some alterations.

In so doing, they rejected several fire safety restrictions proposed by county planning commissioners. In their own hearing in December, commissioners recommended prohibiting the creation of new accessory dwelling units in the wildland-urban interface, which encompasses a large portion of the developed area of the coast. Several community members voiced concern over increased density in areas of high wildfire threat, but supervisors pushed back.

“I am concerned that the restrictions with regards to limiting the ADUs especially within the entire wildland-urban interface is really restrictive and counter to our interest, frankly, in having ADUs be part of our solution to affordable housing,” Supervisor Katie Rice said in a Jan. 26 hearing. 

Retaining one of the planning commission’s recommendations, supervisors limited homeowners living in areas ranked with the highest fire severity to creating accessory dwelling units within existing square footage. In West Marin, that restriction primarily affects Paradise Ranch Estates and the portion of Inverness north of Vision Road. 

For most of the rest of the coast, which is designated as a high fire hazard area, homeowners are allowed to create a unit either within an existing footprint or as a stand-alone structure, for which there are three additional state categories based on size. The rules do not pertain to junior accessory dwelling units, which are smaller and must be part of the main residence. 

All classifications of accessory dwelling units are prohibited from wetland and stream conservation areas. The county already restricts new development in those environmentally sensitive areas, known as ESHAs. 

The board is under state pressure to permit accessory dwelling units in West Marin, where second units provide a path to increase housing within single-family zoning. 

While the state’s support for the creation of accessory dwelling units is welcome, costly septic upgrades and sensitive habitats remain significant barriers, according to Arianne Dar, the executive director of the Bolinas Community Land Trust.

Suzanne Sadowsky, who serves on the board of the San Geronimo Affordable Housing Association, said similar obstacles were on her mind. “Yes, we are supportive of making it easier for people to abide by the new regulations,” she said. “I think the difficult part is taking these rules and being able to implement them in real life, in terms of the cost, permitting, land-use issues and zoning.” 

The planning commission had considered the ADU changes among a suite of development code amendments. Seeking to address wildfire safety, commissioners favored prohibiting the creation of new accessory dwelling units not only in areas with the highest fire risk but also in the much larger wildland-urban interface zone.  

“We are strong advocates for affordable housing and finding ways to create more housing, but we don’t want to create a Paradise Fire situation, and that’s very much what happens in the hillsides with very high fire hazards and in the wildland-urban interface,” District Four Commissioner Chris Desser said at the commission’s hearing. “The intention here is not to limit the housing, it’s to create safety.” 

Other commissioners, such as John Eller, voiced reservations. “We have narrow, steep and winding roads and people choose to live there,” he said. “They pay extra for those secluded, exclusive areas of Marin County. I don’t believe that any further restrictions are appropriate. We need to embrace the opportunity of this baby step toward additional housing in Marin.”

Some groups lobbied hard against new housing allowances. Sustainable TamAlmonte, a group of Tam Valley and Almonte residents, were among those who advocated for the stronger wildfire protections. The group argued that having more people parking on narrow roads would block passage by fire trucks and emergency vehicles and impede evacuations; garages converted to ADUs would further limit on-street parking, it argued.

“Most worrisome is the fact that if the county doesn’t take adequate precautions, then the state’s ADU laws endanger communities in hazardous and constrained areas with unsafe access and evacuation. This is because the laws dramatically increase density and population, potentially more than doubling the population in these hazardous communities,” Sharon Rushton, a chairwoman for Sustainable TamAlmonte, told supervisors.

Others spoke about a specific development planned in Marin City, which they worried posed a fire threat. Royce McLemore, the resident council president of Golden Gate Village, expressed concern about county plans to develop a 74-unit apartment complex on Drake Avenue. “That piece of property is in a fire zone, and as I step back and look at Marin City, we are in the [same situation] as Tennessee Valley and Homestead: our whole perimeter on one side in the park and nothing but eucalyptus trees—dead ones,” she said.

But county supervisors unanimously disagreed with the restrictions the commission settled upon. 

The board struck not only the commission’s recommendation to prohibit all free-standing accessory dwelling units in the wildland-urban interface zone but also a condition that ADUs within existing buildings needed to have emergency access and evacuation routes and be built only on streets at least 20 feet wide across all types of fire-prone areas.

Supervisors included a provision that the rules would be reevaluated once the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority completes its countywide evacuation study. That study will examine ingress routes for emergency personnel and egress routes for residents, and rate all evacuation routes based on risk.  

Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber endorsed the plan to reevaluate. “I think as all of you have articulated here, the challenges are these competing interests between housing and fire protection, and I certainly recognize that. Related to the evacuation study, the M.W.P.A. is moving forward with that relatively soon... It’s really going to take a scientific look at the problem we are discussing here, providing data sets to make really important decisions,” he said.