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Young People Speak Up for Granny Flats

Traverse City to hold hearing on permitting small, in-home apartments

June 1, 2007 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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Narrator: Ken Richmond’s first project after buying a new home in Traverse City was pretty predictable. After all, he’s an architect.

Mr. Richmond: "The first thing my wife and I did when we bought it was renovate the carriage house and add a second floor as a rental."

And why he and his wife went straight from buying a house to performing major surgery on it is also easy to explain:

Mr. Richmond: "That was the only way we could afford to live here. It actually paid our mortgage."

Narrator: Because it is located on a separate and adjacent city lot, Mr. Richomond is legally able to rent his carriage house out. But that’s not the case for most Traverse City residents, who, to rent out a granny flat, must apply for a very restrictive permit.

Carriage houses—or granny flats, as these small add-on apartments are also called—can generate additional income when they’re rented out. Young singles and couples like granny flats, too, because they provide hard-to-find smaller, more affordable, in-town places. And, by helping out smaller-sized households, which are now a big part of American life, these modest apartments, also known as accessory dwelling units, boost a town’s population, school enrollment, local businesses, and tax base…while slowing down sprawl a little, too.

That’s why some towns in northwest Lower Michigan, including Suttons Bay, Frankfort, Petoskey, and Traverse City, are either re-legalizing granny flats, or trying to.

Mr. Richmond is glad.

Mr. Richmond: "ADU dwellers are typically young, single professional people or they’re single, older, quiet people. They make great house sitters, great pet sitters, really good neighbors; they make great baby sitters; they add a dimension to the neighborhood that rounds it out."

Narrator: Meghan Olds and her husband are glad, too. They built a garage with room for a granny flat, and they want Traverse City to legalize ADUs. The city has tried twice, but has failed due to vocal and organized opposition. Currently, to rent their ADU, Ms. Olds would have to obtain a special permit via a hearing process that’s proved arduous enough to squash most ADU activity in Traverse City.

Ms. Olds: "From a planning perspective, I just think it makes a lot of sense. We have a core that’s thriving and I think it’s important to offer housing choices within the downtown so that folks from all different income levels and all different needs in terms of their housing, have a place to stay within the community, instead of moving out further into the suburbs, congesting our road ways, and eroding our schools."

Narrator: In Traverse City, the school district has already closed one in town school, Oak Park, due to not enough children in the neighborhood. The remaining children in that neighborhood are now bused to another elementary school. The district is looking at possibly closing another in-town school as well.

Ms. Olds: "If we want to encourage young people to enter into our community and feel welcome, we really need to listen to those voices. I think it just goes back to respecting the housing needs and choices of other people in the community."

Narrator: In fact, at a recent city planning commission hearing, Traverse City officials heard from many young people who support granny flats. The Traverse City Planner, Russ Soyring has crafted a new ADU ordinance that addresses opponents’ objections. The new ordinance requires that homeowners live on the same property, that designs respect neighbors’ privacy and provide parking, and that the apartment are no larger than 700 sq. ft.

Mr. Richmond urged opponents of the ordinance to be more open-minded about the question.

Mr. Richmond: "I sense that the people criticizing are not understanding what an ADU really is or how it really works or who lives there. ADUs are self-monitoring; an ADU is self-monitoring because the owner lives there. I think it’s time to give this a try. I would encourage it to be citywide to make it valid. So I think it’s time to do this, I think it’s time to give it a go. There seems to be real momentum and real interest even with younger people that want this to happen."

Narrator: One Traverse City official that is championing granny flats and carriage houses is, appropriately, the city commission’s youngest elected member, Matt Schmidt. He, too, urged his city’s residents to take a broad view.

Mr. Schmidt: "It’s indicative of a larger discussion about how we want our community to be and how we want our region to develop. We have an issue with declining population and there are a lot of reasons to live in our region, but we’re not providing enough reasons to actually live within the city."

Narrator: That larger discussion continues Wednesday evening, June 6, at 7 p.m. at the Governmental Center, on Boardman St., in downtown Traverse City, when the city planning commission holds a public hearing on the ADU proposal. It is a chance for Smart Growth advocates to speak in favor of legalizing a development pattern that provides more housing choices for a city that, like most others in Michigan, is struggling to hold onto its people—and all of the good things they bring to a community.

For the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, this is Julie Hay.

Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. Reach her at julie@mlui.orgThe Traverse City Planning Commission will hold a hearing on its accessory dwelling unit proposal on June 6, at 7 p.m., in the Governmental Building.

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