“The bottom line is that it’s still expensive,” Nevada County Supervisor Ed Scofield noted Tuesday as the board voted unanimously to approve a new, 88-page “ADU Guidebook” for owner-builders from the county Planning Department.

As reported Sept. 15, the Nevada County Board of Supervisors approved the regulations that would allow property owners in “urban clusters” in the county to build accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their land.

Furthermore, as reported July 6, the board approved five master plans for building ADUs anywhere in the unincorporated county. Ranging from an ADU above a garage to a small starter home, these highly customizable construction plans allow a homeowner-builder to avoid the usual costs of engineering and architectural design for an individual dwelling unit.

The plans were developed by Mother Lode ADU, a partnership among Nevada, Amador, Calaveras and Mariposa counties. Using Regional Early Action Planning (REAP) funds authorized by California Senate Bill 2, the counties contracted with Jackson & Sands Engineering Inc. of Chico and the Russell Davidson Architecture + Design of Grass Valley to create the master plans.

Guidebook to cost

Both Scofield and Supervisor Lisa Swarthout expressed concern that the combined cost of construction and permitting fees will make these ADUs not affordable for low-income and working-poor people.

“Affordable housing is going to be a function of how much it costs to build it,” associate planner Marie Maniscalco told Swarthout at Tuesday’s board meeting.

ADU Guidebook

Maniscalco presented the new “ADU Guidebook” to the board. The guidebook is designed to “take the mystery out of the process” of building an ADU, she said.

The guidebook incorporates the newest state laws and is relevant to anyone building in Nevada County, said Brian Foss, planning director.

Essentially, the impressive 88-page document is a one-stop resource for everything you need to know about building an ADU. It explains the county permitting process, includes a cost calculator, and even provides exercises for prospective homeowner-builders to complete to help them decide which master plan to use and how to use it.

For more information about the guidebook and to purchase a master plan, contact the Nevada County Planning Department at planning@nevadacountyca.gov or 530-265-1222 (Option 2) or the Rood Administrative Center at 950 Maidu Avenue, Suite 170, Nevada City. The website is www.nevadacountyca.gov/512/Planning-Department.

The final draft of the guidebook the supervisors approved Tuesday may be downloaded as a PDF at https://www.nevadacountyca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/50714/Nevada-County-ADU-Guidebook—DRAFT.

Residents who live in the city limits of Grass Valley, Nevada City or Truckee should consult their local planning or building departments.

Obstacles to adus

Aside from the prohibitive costs to construct a legal ADU, other factors make it difficult or impossible to build.

Scofield observed that the CC&Rs (covenants, conditions & restrictions) of some HOAs (homeowners associations) can prevent the construction of ADUs. This could stymie ADU construction in unincorporated urban clusters like Alta Sierra, Lake of the Pines, Lake Wildwood and other wealthy U.S. Census” tracts within the spheres of influence of Grass Valley and Nevada City.

“Septic systems tend to be the bottleneck,” Maniscalco reported. She said while it is possible to include an ADU in an existing septic system, it must not exceed the capacity of the existing system. If it does, expensive upgrades to the systems or even a separate system might be required.

It was discussed that one workaround would be to declare one bedroom in the main house to be an office or playroom. This would allow the bedroom in the ADU to then be added without overloading the existing septic system.

Outspoken citizen Matthew Coulter phoned into Tuesday’s meeting to point out the obvious. People are living in Tuff Sheds and trailers because there is virtually no affordable housing, and the ADUs the board approved will not be affordable.

Coulter suggested the county reconsider the “Class K” housing regulations. According to the Mendocino County Planning Department, “Class K is a relaxed construction standard available to owner-built rural dwellings and appurtenant structures intended ‘… to allow and facilitate the use of alternatives to the specifications prescribed by the Uniform technical code to the extent that a reasonable degree of health and safety is provided…’”

Scofield asked Maniscalco if the plans pulled so far for ADUs were for rentals or extended family members. Maniscalco said most ADUs were for families.

Alternative dwelling units

The Sierra Roots/No Place to Go Project (SR/NPTGP)is in active discussions with Nevada County over the issue of people living in whatever housing they can get  because there is no legal housing they can afford, much less find.

We have an ever-worsening homeless crisis caused in most part by the beyond-critical shortage of affordable housing. SR/NPTGP believes we must redefine housing, on an emergency basis, to include alternative dwelling units (AltDUs) like trailers, RVs, yurts, tiny homes, shipping containers and whatever else is habitable or can be made habitable.

What’s “habitable”? Running water and responsible septic management are absolute must-haves. No argument there.

As for what else must be required, and what can be waived under emergency conditions, to make an alternative dwelling habitable is the subject of the discussions we’ve had with Board Chairman Scofield and County CEO Alison Lehman.

And this is what we will discuss in a meeting later this month with the directors of the Community Development Agency, Environmental Health, Planning, Building, Code Compliance and possibly others.

The SR/NPTGP is a social justice campaign for homeless folks and people who just can’t find or afford a legal place to live.

We are funded by a grant from the Upstate California Creative Corps, which is a pilot program of the California Arts Council. Sierra Roots is a from-the-heart nonprofit that feeds and clothes homeless people in the Nevada City/Grass Valley area.

Basically, SR/NPTGP is all about safety and housing for the people by the people.

Tom Durkin is creative director of the Sierra Roots/No Place to Go Project, which is funded by a grant from the Upstate California Creative Corps. He may be contacted at tomdurkin@sierra-roots.org or www.project.sierra-roots.org.