State ADU law makes the requirements for cities’ permitting process fairly clear: ADU permits “shall be considered ministerially, without discretionary review or hearing” and local ordinances “shall provide an approval process that includes only ministerial provisions for the approval of accessory dwelling units and shall not include any discretionary processes, provisions, or requirements for those units.” You would think these requirements are clear enough that they would be implemented by Californian cities without problem.

Unfortunately, as you may already know, Piedmont.

In mid-2018 we noticed that the City of Piedmont has adopted a rather creative interpretation of the non-discretionary permitting process. Leaning heavily on the “accessory” in Accessory Dwelling Unit, they pretend that, at permitting time, the proposed structure soon to be known as an “ADU” is simply an “accessory structure” subject to the city’s discretionary design review process. Under the city’s interpretation, it would only become an “ADU” subject to state law after the design of the accessory structure was approved by the planning commission in a public hearing. We didn’t buy it. CaRLA reminded the city of their obligations under state law, but we did not get a response. 

Needing a plaintiff to challenge this novel interpretation of the rules, we were happy to hear from a Piedmont homeowner who was in the process of applying for a new ADU earlier this month. Their design review permit had just been denied at the Planning Commission. Their next step was appealing the decision to the City Council. We helped them draft the appeal so it raised the issue of Piedmont’s illegal process. 

We’re pleased to report that the City Council held a hearing on the appeal last week, and CaRLA was there to make our case. Neighbors objected to the ADU for many irrelevant reasons, but the one that stuck with us was the one who asserted that the ADU should not be approved because they would be able to see the ADU tenants from their breakfast nook window. Yikes. We alerted the Council to the legal risks that they were taking, and spoke up for the ADU as an immediate action Piedmont could take to help do its part in solving the housing shortage. To our surprise, the Council did the right thing and approved the homeowner’s appeal unanimously, granting the ADU permit! While they didn’t eliminate the city’s unlawful discretionary process for ADU applications, they allowed these homeowners to move forward and add some much needed rental housing to Piedmont. 

While we’re famous for our public impact lawsuits that make a lot of noise and raise awareness about the problems, this case is a great example of how CaRLA’s legal advocacy can work without us ever stepping into a courtroom. CaRLA can be very convincing standing up to cities if they know that a lawsuit could be waiting for them if they don’t do the right thing. The bad ADU law is still on the books in Piedmont and we will be paying close attention as they amend their local ADU ordinance to comply with the new state laws by 2020. In light of the unanimous support for this, we expect to help the city bring their ADU ordinance into compliance for 2020 with our upcoming model ADU ordinance for cities interested in upholding the rule of law. Developing such a model ordinance takes valuable staff time, but it has the potential to save Californian taxpayers untold millions in lawsuit expenses. Suing the suburbs can be fun and flashy, but it can turn awfully expensive; we like outcomes like this where we get the same impact for a fraction of the cost. Donate to CaRLA to help us out; a dollar today saves thousands down the road.