Monday, September 25, 2006


There is a proposal to be discussed at today's council meeting to allow "accessory dwelling units" in the zoning code. These would be either attached apartments or small units on the lot of a single family residential unit (R1, R2, R3, C1, or C2). There are several good reasons to allow ADUs. ADUs allow families to take care of elderly relatives, or they allow people to take in a renter to help them stay in their house as property taxes climb. They could also create a stock of lower priced rentals which we clearly need-- people who work in the city frequently can't afford to live here.

The trick is to create these units without just creating more expensive vacation rentals. The city is considering a range of alternatives from requiring proof of full time residency and a long term lease for an ADU permit to requiring proof of local employment.

There are several side issues such as parking, building size, and compatibility. I'll be happy to fill you in on the details, but I'd like to talk about a different aspect of the discussion. A developer rose to speak on the issue at the last council meeting. He suggested that with too many restrictions there will be few if any ADUs, and that if the Council instead passed an unrestricted ADU ordinance the market would work it out.

He was probably stretching his point a bit, but you can argue that in a pure free market there should be no zoning. I like free markets, but this is one area where they can fail us. I'm a strong believer in zoning and land use planning rules. If done fairly, they can increase the value of all real estate in the city. You can compare neighborhoods in Hood River, with relatively strong zoning and land use rules, to neighborhoods in Bingen, with relatively weak rules. I know I prefer my neighborhood in Hood River.

I think most of us can agree on some of the broad goals we would like to achieve through zoning: safe neighborhoods with convenient shopping and a healthy commercial and industrial sector to provide employment. Without a set of reasonable rules about what can be built where you are likely to get a complete mess. But the more subtle questions are where there is some controversy.

How directly should the city legislate what it wants to achieve? Should it legislate exactly what it is trying to accomplish, and risk creating rules that will exclude many uses that are within the intent of the rule? Or should it create general rules to gently guide the market, but risk unintended consequences? Every zoning change is an experiment-- with major potential impact.

In this particular case, I think the consequences of under-regulation are worse than the consequences of over-regulation. A surge in the number of vacation rentals will clearly change the character of many of our neighborhoods.

If we over-specify the rules we may fail to see the ADUs we are hoping will add to the lower cost rental market. I'm not insensitive to the affordable housing problem in our town, but it will be far easier to open up the rules a little in the future than it will be to close them down.

I hate to say it, but ADUs are one of the easier zoning problems to deal with. Let me know what zoning related problems you are seeing in your neighborhoods, and what you think might be the solutions.


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