Granny flats for all!

Ryan Morton, candidate for Ward 1, would have liked the recent Missoula zoning update to have included, “the option for ADUs in all districts“. If elected, Morton would, “probably bring [granny suites] back up and start addressing through performance standards the issues people are concerned about“.

Well, I am honored that Ryan reads and comments on this blog. And, since I am not all that enthused about ADUs, perhaps I can give Morton some pointers on these Accessory Dwelling Units, or ‘granny flats’.

While I suspect many people are worried about density, I don’t see it as the main issue. I think we can deal with density through the usual zoning tools – side setbacks, for instance, can ensure that separate houses don’t get packed too closely together. That makes sense, particularly if seen through the health and safety lens of allowing free flow of air, stopping fires from spreading too easily from house to house, and giving some semblance of quiet enjoyment of your property. If the City wants greater density (and hence affordable housing?), then perhaps we could encourage the granny suites to be built on top of existing, street-facing homes. In many of the new zones, I understand it will be possible to soon build three floors and a basement. Surely, that’s enough room for someone’s sweet grandma?

No, I think the issue with alley homes (a much fairer term than granny flats or mother-in-law suites, because in the vast majority of cases I suspect we will see renters living in these homes and not members of the soon-to-be-deceased family) is the alley. And alleys mean vehicles. Thus, alley homes means an intersection of homes and vehicles.

What are the problems with more vehicles coming and going along alleys? Firstly, and most obviously, alleys were not designed for that much traffic. In my neighborhood, there are any manner of compost bins, covered boats and trailers, cars in various states of repair, and building equipment that sits out in the alley. That’s where we can access our property and so it is the easiest place to unattach or dump our mobile possessions.

That creates a problem. If the best way for our trash collectors, our fire fighters, and the utility company technicians to access our properties is down the alleys, then we’re going to have to ensure the new alley homes don’t park their vehicles there as well. That means building parking on-site, accessible from the alley. With the design of many of the garages-to-be-converted-into-alley homes today, that could be a problem.

Then there’s all the extra traffic. A not uncommon feature of alley homes is that the only access is via the alley. I know that many of them are not supposed to do this and that there is supposed to be access from the street, but a sudden desire for privacy leads property owners to fence off the front house from the back. That means that not only must the fire brigade, police and ambulance access the alley house from the back, so too must the residents.

With all the extra cars zooming up and down the alley, will we need to make sure all the alleys are paved? Probably, if only to alleviate the dust and the noise from all the extra vehicles. In my neighborhood, the kids like to play in the alley – particularly since some of the backyard lawns go right up to the alley without a fence. We’ll need to do something about the speed with which the tenants drive up and down the alley, maybe traffic calming speed bumps. We’ll need to plow the alleys, which probably means narrower plows than the City currently owns. And we’ll probably need to put in a bevy of stop signs to encourage people to slow down as they reach the end of the alley and not run right into the pedestrians walking along the sidewalks.

Sound too expensive and not very effective? I think so. Alley homes just aren’t very safe.

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2 Responses

  1. Not all ADU’s are alley homes (basement of an existing home,etc.) or require alley access (as if existing single family and multifamily homes don’t already utilize alley access). Further, most of your concerns are already addressed in the Proposed title 20 (setbacks, parking, etc.).

    Thanks for the “pointers.” Also, you should send your comments to City Council so that they may consider them for their vote tomorrow.

  2. I’m not sure I agree that all of the concerns (adequate air circulation, protection from fires next door, required on-site parking, guaranteed access to ADU from street, safety for neighborhood children, dust control, speed in alleys, access by emergency personnel, plowing of alleys, the added cost of providing necessary infrastructure, etc.) are dealt with in the zoning update. But, assuming they are … is the only reason for opposition to ADU’s because of density concerns?

    BTW, a friend emailed me with a comment – if people don’t like having their neighbors house so close to their own, then perhaps they shouldn’t build -their- house so close to the boundary line.

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