Riemer Admits ADU Error and Responds

Even if a reply on twitter isn’t quite the same as a publicly-funded email blast, this is the first time I’ve seen Hans correct the record, so that’s a positive step. Except the inaccurate 133 number has been bandied about and propagated a lot, including by Hans at his own forum on ADUs, if memory serves, and without correction by either Casey Anderson or Lisa Govoni from Planning at the meeting.

Additionally, Hans continues to underestimate the number of ADUs. As Andy Harney points out, the number on the county website arbitrarily excludes many ADUs given a different classification but that are ADUs. While 473 is over 3.5 times the figure given by Hans, the 1268 identified by Harney is over 9.5 times Hans’s inaccurate numbers.

I don’t why Hans ended up inadvertently using incredibly outdated information – there were far more than 133 ADUs even in 2012. But the existence of nearly 10 times more ADUs than he claims exists would seem to be an important difference to many, though reasonable people can disagree on this as on so many issues.

Moreover, I have had both detractors and supporters of ADUs point out that the count excludes many illegal or unregistered ADUs. As a result, the legal ADU count greatly underestimates the number of ADUs in reality. The unknown true number is well off from Hans’s erroneous representation.

ADU supporters hope that Hans’s legislation will make it easier to legalize illegal units. While perhaps so in some cases, I’d hope that units that, say, don’t meet the fire code would not be legalized. Either way, the presence of many illegal units reinforces the truth of claims regarding the total inability or unwillingness of the County to enforce its laws.

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Riemer Massively Understated Number of Existing ADUs

In his effort to push forward his zoning text amendment on accessory dwelling units (ADUs) that would radically alter building conditions and Master Plans throughout single-family neighborhoods, Councilmember Riemer has lamented the lack of existing ADUs, claiming that only 133 exist throughout Montgomery County.

Except that figure is completely false. It greatly understates the number of existing ADUs by a factor of at least 3.5 and probably more. The information showing it’s untrue is readily available on Montgomery County websites. Indeed, memos provided to the Council in the past directly contradict the claims made by Hans in his publicly funded communications.

The county’s own website says that there are 473 existing ADUs – over three times more than advertised by Hans Riemer and other advocates of his ZTA.

Look at the teeny-tiny print on the bottom left for the total count

A look at requests for ADU approvals under existing rules reveals 257 applications in recent years with only a small minority withdrawn or denied. The number of applications refutes Hans’s claim that virtually no one can legally build them under existing rules in Montgomery County. And this is before rules adopted just a few years ago to make it easier to build them have gone into effect and had a chance to have an impact.

In devastating follow-up testimony sent to Council President Nancy Navarro, Andy Leon Harney, explained in more detail that even these higher figures sorely underestimate the number of existing legal ADUs:

The figure often quoted that there are only 133 ADUs for a county of 1 million is simply false. In 2012, when the Council was considering ZTA 12-11, the Board of Appeals, which approved special exception accessory apartments said that between 1983 and 2012, they had approved 605 accessory apartments. Mr. Zyontz in memos to the Council at the time (10/8/12 p. 7 and 10/22/12 page 10) reported there were either 413 or 431 (probably a typo). At the same time, there were also 698 Residential Living Units—that is rent free accessory apartments approved for use by a relative, elderly parent or caregiver which are still legal and over time may well have been converted to rental units.  That would mean there were at least 1,111 ADUs plus guest houses which are no longer allowed but were grandfathered in with the passage of ZTA 12-11. The 133 number so often quoted is not accurate, and in fact there are 157 ADUs that have been approved since 2012, making the total ADUs closer to 1268, with others in the pipeline. If the Council is data driven, these facts should matter. If the Council allows itself to be persuade by an inaccurate number of “only 133 ADUs in a County of 1 million”, they are being misled.

Andy Harney is the Village Manager of Chevy Chase Section 3.

As I’ve previously explained, Hans’s legislation is deeply flawed for a number of reasons. In a post later this week, I hope to present a couple of easy amendments that would shift the focus back to the creation of smart-growth affordable housing and virtually eliminate most of the likely harms stemming from the misguided approach in the proposed ZTA.

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Progressive Legislation on Cell-Phone Towers a Casualty of Lisanti’s Fall?

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti’s (D-Harford) pariah status within the House of Delegates may have the important side effect of aiding cell-phone company efforts to get a favored bill passed.

Expansion of 5G networks requires small cell phone towers going into neighborhoods. Del. Dereck Davis (D-Prince George’s), the Chair of the Economic Matter Committee, has sponsored the bill favored by business. Lisanti, who also served on Economic Matters until losing her committee assignments, sponsored the more progressive and neighborhood-oriented bill.

One key difference between the bills is that Davis’s would preempt all local laws, while Lisanti’s would grandfather in all existing local laws on the installation of small wireless facilities. Another important difference is that Davis’s bill bans the collection of any fees from wireless providers, but the competing legislation would allow collection of a surcharge of up to 1% of revenues in order to provide wireless to underserved areas around the State.

Prior to Lisanti’s censorship by the House for use of a hateful racial epithet, her bill was gaining more traction than Davis’s. While Davis’s bill has no cosponsors, Lisanti’s has 17 with seven sitting on the Economic Matters Committee. While Lisanti’s bill did not have a public majority of the committee yet, her bill presented an unusually strong challenge to the one favored by the Chair.

Unless another delegate is willing to take up the lead in fighting for the bill, including facing off against a powerful committee chair, Dereck’s more conservative legislation may prevail thanks to Lisanti’s exclusion. Davis and the cell-phone industry look to notch up a victory as the neighborhood-oriented legislation is collateral damage to Lisanti’s fall.

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Update from Reader on Illegal AirBnB

A reader has also been curious about the illegal AirBnB that I profiled yesterday and contacted the Montgomery County office of the Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation asking that the property be reclassified as commercial. (Note: this is a state, not a county office.) Here is the reply they received:

We have researched and found that the property is zoned R-60 for residential use and does not have any type of special use agreement with the Montgomery County Department of Permitting Services, Zoning and Site Plan Division .  Therefore we will not reclassify the account as commercial property.  Our records also show that the property is not owner occupied, so there is no further action to be taken by the State of Maryland. 

The owner doesn’t live there but continues to run a commercial youth hostel out of the house. The lack of commercial classification on the property seems woefully unfair to hotels engaged in the same business–renting out spaces in non-owner occupied structures. It is also quite different from an owner renting out a room or two in their own home, as AirBnB was originally conceived and presented.

In any case, it has been over a year since a county resident made a complaint about this illegal ADU and it’s still going strong. The use is not remotely consistent with the zoning code.

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It’s No Myth that AirBnBs arrive with ADUs

Supporters of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) claim that it’s a “myth” that they will be turned into AirBnBs or other short-term rentals.

Unfortunately, the law is not always a good guide to what happens.

Portlandia

Portland is often cited as the promised land by ADU supporters. Like Montgomery County, Portland’s ADU guidelines state that they are “designed for residential occupancy independent of the primary dwelling unit.”

But according to a survey prepared for a 2018 report prepared by the Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) at Portland State University, 31% of ADUs are for short-term housing, defined as stays as less than one month. Only 56% are being used as someone’s primary residence. ISS is staunchly pro-ADU, so it’s hard to throw dirt on the statistics as part of a nefarious anti-ADU plot.

While intended as residential dwelling units, many are used as AirBnBs or the equivalent. The survey did not present statistics on what percentage were in compliance with Portland’s permitting requirements for short-term rentals.

Illegal AirBnBs

Councilmember Hans Riemer laudably wants to focus ADUs on housing rather than hotel space. In a recent email blast, he touted “the units could not be used for short-term rentals (i.e., Airbnb)” under his proposed legislation.

Unfortunately, illegal AirBnBs already exist with impunity in Montgomery County. Here is a photo of one operating in Bethesda:

A complaint was filed about this illegal AirBnB with the County last April. The complaint was “resolved” by kicking it over to the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA).

The county database shows no sign of an ongoing investigation. Apparently, they got a license after the complaint was filed but the current usage is not in compliance for these sorts of rentals. One also wonders if the county or the state is even capturing the appropriate tax from this usage since they don’t know it exists despite advertisements on AirBnB.

Increasing the burden on county enforcement authorities through the addition of hundreds of ADUs per year seems an unlikely way to solve the problem. As the County fails to keep on top of existing situations with complaints, it’s hard to have faith that a ban on AirBnBs in ADUs will be anything other than totally meaningless.

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