Why I Don’t Like The Proposal For Accessory Dwellings Being Considered Under Chapter 16 Revision

Los Alamos

I’m going to tell you why I don’t like the proposal for Accessory Dwelling Units being considered by the P&Z Wednesday night and the Council in November. My reasons are my concern for the livability of Los Alamos neighborhoods, my disappointment that ADU’s are being hawked as the solution to the fabled “housing crisis” (ADU’s are not a solution and the “crisis” is returning to its decades – long “problem” status), and are based on sound legal principles.

ADU’s would be allowed in single-family and some multi-family neighborhoods in all of Barranca Mesa, large parts of North Mesa, Western Area, and White Rock, and most of North Community. They would continue to be excluded from most of Eastern Area, parts of North Mesa, and most of the residential areas in the townsite North of East Road and Central.  Currently they are allowed only in a few areas of North Community that were destroyed by the Cerro Grande fire and which negotiated with the Council for ADU’s to facilitate rebuilding after the fire.  There are many apartments attached to houses in existence now that would be considered attached ADU’s.

ADU’s could be up to 800 square feet, attached or not to the primary building on a residential lot, have to meet certain setback, height, and coverage requirements, and must be provided with one off-street parking place.  There are many apartments in existence now that would be considered attached ADU’s and grandfathered if they don’t meet the specs.  A proposal that would have required every ADU to be at least 300 feet from any other was defeated last week.  

When you talk about Zoning in residential districts the principal parameters are spacing between houses and streets and the number of dwelling units on a building lot.  Or in other words, density expressed in what amounts to families per unit area.  While ADU’s on multi-family-zoned lots are possible mostly we’re talking single-family-residential zoning.  The title of a typical zone looks like R-1-10:  Residential, 1 dwelling unit per lot, lot minimum size 10,000 square feet.    A column in a table contains the rest of the parameters, height, setbacks, lot coverage etc.  That’s the essence of zoning – language from a model zoning ordinance says it is to “lessen congestion in the streets, to secure safety from fire, panic, and other dangers, to provide adequate light and air, to prevent the overcrowding of land and avoid undue concentration of population… .”  I call it Family Density, and although the size of a family who occupy a house can vary widely it normally sort of averages out so you know what you can expect from, say,  R-1-10.  Especially if you look around before you buy it.  It tells you what the limits are on your use of your property, and gives you an expectation you can rely on that your neighbor will not exceed those limits either, and that the government will enforce it against either of you. 

It affects the quality of life in the neighborhood.  If two neighbors, say, put in ADU’s and rent them out then there are two more families, with their cars, radios, and visitors They are taking up the space in the neighborhood you were relying on for “adequate light and air,” privacy, parking on the street.  In effect they are renting out the ambiance of the neighborhood you have a right to expect when you bought the property, and taking a little bit from each of their neighbors.

Black letter law is that zoning is not a property right, and the government can rezone your property.  But in New Mexico “The fundamental justification for an amendatory or repealing zoning ordinance is a change of conditions . . . necessary to protect the public interest [or to] cover and perfect previous defective ordinances or correct mistakes or injustices therein.”  The Judge who used that quote from another court then said, “the rule evidences a concern over the stability of zoning regulations and a landowner’s right to rely on existing zoning rules.”

So if the County adds to your neighbor’s lot the right to build a dwelling unit, cozily sized for a 3 person family, on his lot that is zoned for one family, is that a zoning change?  I say if the fundamental parameter that defines a zone district is doubled, then that’s a de facto zoning change from single family residential to multi-family residential, even if they cutely say elsewhere in the document that this shall not be considered a zone change (they changed all the zone names too).  And if they further refuse a simple distance restriction to limit the over-crowding to a reasonable level that might approximate the previous density, then that’s just zoning overreach.    

The lab now says that they expect not to grow more than another 1000.  The construction boom of recent months has just under 1000 units completed or nearly so, and another 500 or so are in the works.  The lab has taken steps to move 2000 to 3000 jobs to Santa Fe.  The feverish fantasy that has driven some politicians to propose extreme measures to meet a fancied flood of thousands of new workers at the expense of our infrastructure, our schools, our mountains, our water, and the livability of our neighborhoods has no basis in fact.  So there is no “public interest” that would justify a zoning change.

This train is a-movin’ on, and it’s getting close to the station.  If you agree that this is a bad idea please make your displeasure known to P&Z and Council through the usual channels – and soon.