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Proposed tweaks would allow for 500 new residential units

To help satisfy the demand for housing, a proposed change in city land codes could open opportunities for as many as 500 new residential units in Durango’s older neighborhoods near downtown and along north Main Avenue.

The catch: These new residential properties would be located behind existing homes. They are what city planners call accessory-dwelling units but are more commonly known as the mother-in-law apartments, backyard cottages, pool houses or garage apartments.

The defining characteristic is that they are supposed to be smaller or subordinate to the main house or principal structure, said Todd Messenger, a consultant from Aurora who is helping the city to update its land-use development codes.

As for relevance to the city’s land code, the accessory dwelling “is the leaf on the tree upon which nothing else depends,” said Messenger at the start of a two-hour study session with the City Council on Tuesday.

Because of the pressure on the housing market, the accessory-dwelling unit has become a big issue, especially with councilors, such as Christina Rinderle, who emphasize “urban infill,” or taking advantage of underused space.

But officials have struggled over the last six months about how to regulate them. Under the proposal, Durango would restrict them to the two older neighborhoods because they have alleyways to accommodate somebody living at the back of a property. It’s also because consensus could not be reached on how they should be regulated elsewhere, Messenger said.

Because the older neighborhoods already have so many accessory-dwelling units, the city must also come up with an amnesty plan to bring them in compliance, officials said. They fall into a legal gray area because city codes currently allow for detached duplexes only on lots 7,500 square feet or larger.

The proposed change would drop the lot size restrictions for the neighborhood east of downtown and decrease it to 7,000 square feet for the residential areas along north Main Avenue.

Property owners could then build accessory dwellings as long as they met design standards, such as setback and floor-area requirements and a maximum square-feet requirement of 550.

The attitude is “If you can fit in, go ahead and fit it,” Messenger said.

He realized it would be difficult to squeeze in the dwelling units in many cases.

“I’m not going to lie to you, it’s hard to be done, but it can be done,” he said.

Messenger also would limit the appeals process for accessory dwellings to a neighborhood design review board and not allow appeals to go up to City Council. He said many of the city’s current appeals processes are “hopelessly confused.”

Because of the interest in accessory dwellings, councilors want to hold extra study sessions.

Rinderle questioned regulations that would limit one accessory dwelling unit per property, which is intended to prevent “slum-lording,” and require parking.

“I am OK with on-street parking,” Rinderle said. “It’s OK. We live in a city. We’re smart. We can figure it out.”

As part of the land-use code, the city is also revising parking codes to reduce parking requirements in areas of the city accessible to walking, bicycles or public transit.

The city also wants to create more flexibility in its parking policies to allow for more residential development downtown. In particular, Messenger said, the city needs to come up with policies to allow for overnight parking.

This prompted discussion on the city’s long-term goal of building a parking garage downtown. The idea is so old that senior planner Greg Hoch said” “we were talking about it 20 years ago.”

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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