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Deer cull vs. granny units:
similar fervor, different result

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By Margaret A. Leary

Cull opponents’ passion was similar to opponents of another proposed city action back in 2002 — liberalizing the rules about “accessory apartments” within residential dwellings, to create more affordable housing.

The big difference: the 2002 opponents won, and the rules remain unchanged today.

In 1998-99, the City Council noted the lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor and appointed an Affordable Housing Task Force to identify ways to fix the problem. The task force did so, and in 2000 the council directed the Planning Commission to revise the accessory apartment ordinance.

Karen Hart, a professional planner who was director of Ann Arbor’s Planning Department in 2002, explains that Ann Arbor’s ordinance then, as now, allowed accessory apartments, but with three severe limitations. First, applicants must pay a fee, submit a site plan and complete a process to gain approval, or rejection, at City Hall. Second, if approved, such units can only be occupied by a family member or by a person providing a service to the resident homeowner. Third, no rent can be charged.

The proposed revision in 2002 sought to remove all three constraints and add new standards about size, occupancy, parking and distance from other dwellings.

The Planning Commission spent nine months revising the ordinance. The process included public hearings and garnered support from the affordable housing community, the Housing Bureau for Seniors and the Chamber of Commerce.

The Planning Commission’s first public hearing on the revisions, on Sept. 4, 2001, was dominated by opponents. So was the City Council meeting on Feb. 4, 2002, and the second Planning Commission hearing, on Feb. 5, 2002. Many opponents represented politically powerful neighborhood associations.

Objectors expressed concern about “zoning changes in disguise,” the likely lowering of property values and a plot by the university to avoid building residence halls. There was no easy way to verify those assertions. Councilmembers reported being overwhelmed with letters and emails repeating the claims.

Opposition was so strong and organized that, at that Feb. 4 meeting, the City Council unanimously voted that “no additional staff time or city resources be devoted to the proposed ordinance amendment.”

The Planning Commission met the next night, and commissioners spoke of the council’s action as a “major setback to affordable housing in Ann Arbor” which “exhibited a complete lack of political will to solve the problem” and of “letters filled with non-facts, distortions and unacceptable language.” Collectively, they listed what they saw as the benefits of accessory apartments: helping older or single people stay in their homes; helping younger or single people purchase homes; making more effective use of existing housing stock; and keeping more residents in the city proper.

Two commissioners, Margaret Leary and Kristin Gibbs, argued that the commission should challenge the council’s action by approving and sending the resolution back to council. But the vote went against the proposed changes, 5 to 4, and that was the death of wider use of accessory apartments for at least 14 years.

Eunice Burns, an energetic nonagenarian who served three terms on the City Council and ran for mayor in the 1960s, has happily lived for 20 years in the accessory apartment in her daughter’s home on Harbal, watching her four grandchildren grow up there. She was appalled at what happened in 2002. Her explanation: “People don’t listen to reason when they’ve already made up their minds.”

Lack of affordable housing is again an issue. The Planning Commission has “accessory apartment ordinance revision” on its work plan. What do Ann Arborites’ values lead them to think about accessory apartments in single-family residences? What will the council do? Stay tuned.

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