Skip to main content

Cottonwood Heights Journal

Cottonwood Heights ordinance to decide if basement apartments, "mother-in-law" houses, are illegal

May 23, 2018 11:16AM ● By Cassie Goff

Detached ADUs are addressed in the currently drafted ordinance as accessory dwelling units and have their own set of requirements. (Utah League of Cities and Towns)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

For almost a year, the Cottonwood Heights City Council has been discussing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) within the city. The first draft for an ordinance addressing ADUs was released on August 15, 2017. Since that time, the ordinance has been revised multiple times based on public comment, survey results, additional city research and much discussion.

Many people recognize ADUs as mother-in-law apartments, granny flats, carriage homes, garage apartments, coach houses or basement apartments. While there are varying definitions of ADUs across the city planning sphere, Cottonwood Heights defines an ADU as “a residential dwelling unit meant for one additional single family located on the same lot as a single-family dwelling unit, either within the same building as the single-family dwelling (attached ADU) or in a detached building (detached ADU).” 

Prior to the city’s incorporation, ADUs were considered illegal under Salt Lake County. As such, they did not license, track or permit ADUs within what is now Cottonwood Heights. While the city is aware that there are ADUs within city limits, they are unsure of how many or where they are.

Currently, all ADUs are considered illegal within the city code and are enforced by Code Enforcement within the Cottonwood Heights Police Department. Historically, enforcement has largely been based on complaint, since search warrants are not generally issued for ADUs. If an ADU is found to be operating illegally, the property owners can be cited, or ordered to cease and desist, which may potentially kick individuals or families out of their living spaces.

The city council felt this issue was significant since it seemed like they had a system that favored people willing to break the law. In an attempt to address this issue, an ordinance was created. The ordinance needed to be passed through the planning commission as well as the city council. However, many issues including the ones mentioned above made creating an adept ordinance quite challenging.

The current ordinance, which was last revised on March 8, states that the purposes of ADUs in single-family residential zones (R-1 and RR zones) are an important tool in the overall housing goals and needs of the city, and they allow for alternative and flexible housing options in owner-occupied single-family residences.

For the council, one of the main purposes for the drafted ordinance is life safety issues. The city wants to be able to preserve and enhance life safety standards required for residential occupancy through the creation of a regulatory process for ADUs.

To keep those life safety standards regulated, property owners would have to acquire a license to operate an ADU. This would involve an approval process where development standards with a building inspection would have to be met. A property owner would have to pay an application fee of a minimum $150, show proof of owner occupancy from two documents, complete a building inspection and complete a landlord training program, among additional requirements.

On January 17, the planning commission voted on a positive recommendation for the city-initiated proposal to create an ADU ordinance which was passed with a 3 to 2 vote. The recommendation had five conditions, including landscape requirements, language details, that a home-occupation license with clients is not allowed to have an ADU and that there should be a clear process of enforcement.

“I feel that ADUs represent the character of Cottonwood Heights. They are here and part of the character,” said District 4 Commissioner Christine Coutts.

Much public comment has been received by the city. A 26-page document was compiled with resident comments that were received from August to December 2017. These comments include statements taken during public comment sessions, as well as emails and other written comments.

Many of the comments opposing the ordinance involve protecting single-family neighborhoods, density, parking and nuisances. One of the most constant opposing voices is resident Robert Jacobs, who bought his home in a single-family neighborhood over 40 years ago.

 “The ADU ordinance will eliminate R-1 zones from the city,” said Jacobs.

Many of the comments in favor of the ordinance involve affordable housing options, family accommodation and additional income.

“I’m in favor of the ADU. The planning commission has done a great job addressing safety, traffic and parking concerns. It’s a reality that ADUs are here today,” said resident LeAnn Airheart.

Additionally, the city sent out an internet-based survey where a portion of questions inquired about ADUs. Around 600 randomly selected residents responded to the survey. Based on the survey results, about half of residents were aware of ADUs. From that base, 46 percent of residents voted to amend the city code to allow homeowners to rent out portions of their homes as ADUs. Twenty-six percent voted that the city should take no action, while only 20 percent voted to enforce the current city code and evict those renters currently occupying ADUs.

Cottonwood Heights city staff members reached out to surrounding cities for more information, asking a number of questions about ADUs within their districts. Nineteen cities responded, including Sandy, Holladay, Midvale and Taylorsville. One of the most consistent responses was that they did not know how many ADUs they had within their boundaries.

The most recent (as of publication) conversation by the Cottonwood Heights City Council was on April 17. The council members discussed enforcement, parking and policy with planning staff members. “You have to do something about the parking. I don’t want every house in our city to be able to do this,” said Councilmember Christine Mikell.

Voting on this ordinance has been continuously pushed back, as more issues are raised and many residents request to not rush the vote. Currently, the vote has been scheduled during the month of June. Councilmember Tali Bruce will most likely abstain from the vote. Mayor Mike Peterson has also considered abstaining.

For more information on ADUs, visit the community development page of the city website.