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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 46.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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City fees could deter backyard apartment units in Madison
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Pamela Porter (left) and Ald. David Ahrens (right) say the cost of city fees for backyard apartments is too high.

When Madison officially legalized the construction of "accessory dwelling units"--backyard cottages often called "mother-in-law apartments"--Pamela Porter and Mare Chapman rolled up their sleeves and began designing one for their Marquette home.

The couple thought that Porter's mother could live there and that, when they got older, they might move into it and rent out their main house.

Complications arose. Backyard houses are more expensive to build than the couple expected -- in part because the city is charging homeowners thousands in park impact fees to build them.

"We were surprised by the price tag," Porter says.

Others were too and are fighting the city to lower its fees for accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

The city charges park impact fees to anyone who builds a residence, whether a single-family home or an apartment building. It uses the money to fund more park space.

In an April 30 memo, assistant city attorney Doran Viste argues that the city is forced by state law to treat ADUs like single-family homes, which require the highest level of impact fees.

Susan Thering, an architect who is executive director of the Design Coalition Institute, has been offering technical expertise to families wanting to build ADUs. The institute advocates for the ADUs as an environmentally friendly way to increase density in older neighborhoods and provide affordable housing.

ADUs come in different shapes and sizes. Some are above garages or attached to existing homes. They all have separate entrances and are distinct units. However, they cannot be subdivided from the main housing unit.

Although the city approved their construction in the recent zoning-code rewrite, Thering fears the impact fees will stymie construction. “They will deter almost all the people who come to me because I'm a nonprofit that offers technical assistance to moderate- to low-income families," she says.

The city can adjust its fees but first needs to complete a parks needs assessment, a lengthy and time-consuming project.

On June 4, the Board of Public Works voted against an appeal by a family that wants to turn a garage into an ADU at its home on Woodward Drive near Warner Park. The city is requiring $3,854 in park impact fees for this project.

Ald. David Ahrens, who sits on the board, thinks the fees are disproportionately high. He notes that ADUs are ideal for residents trying to care for elderly or sick family members.

"This has the unintended effect of discouraging those kinds of residences," he says. "These are not commercial, profitable ventures -- they're all ventures to keep a family cohesive and provide services to a family member who might otherwise be institutionalized."

Ahrens made a motion to the board to lower the fee to $700 for the Woodward Drive project, but the motion failed, over fears of setting a precedent.

Porter and Chapman have put their own plans for a backyard house on hold for now. "With this new policy," she says, "the city is not quite ready for prime time in implementing it."

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