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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Overcast
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Backyard homes begin to sprout around Madison
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Madison's new zoning laws allow Chapman (l.) and Porter to turn their garage into an 'accessory dwelling unit.'

Pamela Porter and Mare Chapman have been together for 25 years. They love their home on Riverside Drive in the Marquette neighborhood.

But as they grow old together, they realize they might not always be able to live there, either because it's too difficult to maintain or too expensive. Madison's new zoning laws, however, provide an option: The couple could build an "accessory dwelling unit" (ADU) in their backyard.

So they are contemplating turning their 12-by-18-foot garage into a home, which they could rent -- for now.

"We thought we might live in it when we're too old to live in the larger house," Chapman says. "It's a way for us to stay in the neighborhood and live here."

"I've always liked the idea of living smaller and more beautifully," says Porter. "This idea is pretty neat."

In an effort to encourage these mini-houses (also known as mother-in-law apartments or carriage houses), the Design Coalition Institute, an architectural firm, has started the Green Accessory Dwelling Unit Initiative. Its goal is getting 24 Madison families to build the houses in the next two years.

Susan Thering, the institute's executive director and an architect, says she'll provide free technical assistance to people "who step up and say 'I'm going to build a green ADU.' I will help walk them through the process."

ADUs can be separate cottages, apartments in a basement, a space above a garage, or a unit attached to a home. Thering says they're an excellent way to respectfully increase density. "You can virtually double the number of housing units in a historic neighborhood without really changing the character," she says.

Since the new zoning rules went into effect in January, Madison has approved two ADUs, says Matt Tucker, the city's zoning administrator. The city approved a garage with a rear apartment at 939 E. Dayton St. and a garage with a second-story apartment at 1030 Vilas Ave.

However, Tucker says a proposal to turn an existing workshop building behind 1438 Morrison St. into an apartment with a rooftop deck has been opposed by neighbors. "There was concern about a loss of privacy," he says. "Our hope is they talk to the neighbors and try to get a little more buy-in from the neighborhood."

Porter and Chapman are still contemplating their own plans. Money could be the deciding factor.

"When we talked to our banker, she was like, 'I've never heard of an ADU,'" Porter says. "One of the challenges is how do they give these loans, what's the process, and how is [the property] assessed. They have to figure out what they can do and can't do."

Thering will give presentations on ADUs in the coming weeks: 6:45 p.m., Nov. 26, at Sequoya Branch Library; and 6:30 p.m., Dec. 4, at Bashford United Methodist Church.

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