A partially-constructed accessory dwelling unit built atop a garage, initially without city of Napa permits, will likely need to be rebuilt after the city’s planning commission tacked on several conditions of approval to an administrative permit.
The commission voted Thursday to deny an appeal of the administrative permit for the ADU — which is located behind a primary house at 2831 Laurel St. — but added on several conditions requested by the appellant, neighbor Madeline Gomez, to boost privacy.
The approved conditions include: that applicant Edward Zeltser reorient the roof of the ADU and that he reduce the pitch of the roof or make it into a shed roof; that windows that look into neighbor’s yards on the south and west of the property are no lower than 5 feet at the window sill level; and to establish a six-foot setback from the principle dwelling unit to the ADU.
Gomez’ brother, attorney Ricardo Gomez, said at the meeting his sister wasn’t looking to stop the construction of the ADU unless the commission felt the desired conditions — the reorientation of the roof and window requirements — couldn’t be requested.
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He added that the privacy issues identified by the appeal could’ve been handled during the city’s typical planning process had Zeltser not begun constructing the building without permits.
“We’re not opposed to ADUs at all, and not to second story ADUs,” Gomez said. “Had Mr. Zeltser simply applied for a permit, come to the neighbors, we could’ve worked this out.”
Zeltser, after referencing “civil liberties” — “the liberty to pursue what we want” — said he attempted to contact the city to get appropriate permits last year but received no response.
“I attempted to contact the city; there was no one working there; I did the wrong thing,” Zeltser said. “I decided, well, I’m just going to build it to this point, enclose it and use it for storage, then legalize it and pull the permits when the city opens back up.”
Zeltser added that he wasn’t against making subtle changes to the building.
Commissioners raised several concerns related to setbacks around the ADU, amid other concerns. One example, that the garage is 3 feet away from the property line on two sides, would’ve been allowed if the structure had remained a garage.
But an ADU is required to be 4 feet away from neighboring property lines, which essentially means the garage structure — underneath the ADU — needs to be moved back a foot on two sides.
Some commissioners raised concerns about how that could affect the structural integrity of the building.
“I’m a builder, and to move that wall in one foot changes the loading of that building,” said commissioner Bob Massaro. “The second story is no longer loaded off the exterior walls. I would be shocked if that entire second story did not have to come off.”
Commissioner Gordon Huether said he found the behavior of Zeltser to be inconsiderate. He said that the appeal and commission hearing wouldn’t have been necessary if Zeltser had “played by the rules in the first place.”
“I know we’re supposed to keep it to the ADU issue, but to me, it seems there’s a little bit of a pattern going on here that is kind of pushing the boundaries of, no pun intended, pushing the setbacks of following the rules just like everybody else,” Huether said. “If I was Ms. Gomez, and I came home one day and there was that thing looming over my back yard, I would be going absolutely bananas.”
In light of the appeal, the commissioners also discussed possible changes to the city’s ADU code. The state of California in recent years has brought forward several new state laws to make it easier to build ADU’s, cutting down on the time and cost of the approval processes by making local approval of those applications broadly ministerial — which means cities are required to approve the permits through a non-discretionary administrative process — said senior city planner Mike Allen.
“It’s been the charge that the city make it easier to get ADUs approved, to make it more cost effective, so we’ve been seeing a flood of ADUs over the past three years, more than we’ve ever seen in 20 years,” Allen said.
Deputy City Attorney Sabrina Wolfson said that, though there is some room for discretion built into current state law, the city’s ADU ordinance doesn’t provide that room or reference specific criteria that would allow an ADU to be denied.
“While state law would permit the city to draft its ordinance in a way that built in discretion, it’s not currently drafted in that manner,” Wolfson said.
The commission had the ability to add additional conditions to the administrative permit approval for the Zeltser property, however, because of provisions related to the appeals process in city code, Wolfson said.
Massaro said the Zeltser ADU is a perfect example of a project that would’ve never gotten this far if the city had established stronger guidelines.
“Every day I have to conform to the planning codes, the building codes and the zoning codes,” Massaro said. “So I have a problem with someone who just goes ahead and doesn’t seem to be too concerned about getting a building permit.”
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