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ADU spurs backlash from neighbors

TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - Eight neighbors have erected protest signs surrounding a new accessory dwelling unit being developed by Planning and Sustainability Commissioner Eli Spevak.  As residential infill projects around Portland provoke a spate of conflicts with neighbors, one type of housing has escaped their wrath: granny flats.

Indeed, granny flats, aka accessory dwelling units or ADUs, have been so well-accepted in Portland that advocates are urging the city to start allowing two per lot: one in a converted attic, basement or garage; another in a detached cottage in the backyard. The idea comes from Vancouver, British Columbia.

Advocates say ADUs are an ideal way to provide more affordable housing in desirable, walkable neighborhoods; allow senior citizens to age in place next to family members; and tenants to have a lighter environmental footprint.

But developer Eli Spevak, one of Portland’s chief advocates of tiny homes and co-housing, found out the hard way that ADUs aren’t always so popular.

Over the past two months, eight neighbors surrounding Spevak’s ADU project in the South Tabor neighborhood erected signs saying “Stop Bad Infill.”

The protest signs are directed at Spevak’s Applewood Corner project on Southeast 71st Avenue and Woodward Street, where he is fixing up his former girlfriend’s (and now wife’s) 1906 farmhouse and building an adjacent 800-square-foot ADU. Spevak is marketing them as a condo community, with both homes facing a large, shared garden on the corner.

Steve Zorb, who lives next-door, says the project was poorly sited and ill-conceived. He mobilized neighbors and provided them with the protest signs.

“ADUs, I think, should fit the neighborhood better than this one does,” Zorb says.

Neighbors complain the ADU was built too close to the sidewalk along 71st Avenue and too close to the farmhouse. They argue that its sideways orientation created a barrier to Zorb’s house next door, and other neighbors along 71st.

“It kind of puts a wall between the house that was already there and the neighborhood,” Zorb says. “We tried to persuade him to move it back farther, and he wasn’t interested in that.”

“It sticks out like a sore thumb,” says Karen Schneider, who lives across the street from the project on the other side of Woodward Street. She calls the ADU a “monstrosity,” while her partner Tim Cain calls it “an eyesore.”

“It should have been in the back, instead of out in the sidewalk,” Cain says. “It doesn’t fit the neighborhood at all.”

Budding ADU aversion?

This isn’t the only Portland neighborhood where neighbors are starting to complain about ADUs. Some grumble that neighbors are exploiting the city’s lenient siting policies and ADU development-fee waiver — which shaves several thousand dollars off construction costs — to create lucrative short-term rental properties marketed on Airbnb and other websites.

That was one of the rationales for Multnomah County Assessor Randy Walruff to jack up property taxes on new detached ADUs in November. After being roundly criticized, Walruff eventually retracted his new ADU tax policies and issued tax rebates.

But Applewood Corner may be an anomaly. While the main house fronts 71st Avenue, a busy collector street linking Division Street to Powell Boulevard, its side yard along Woodward Street is a few feet longer. Under city rules, that means the “front” of the lot is on Woodward. Different city rules require ADUs be sited in the back yard, which means Spevak was merely following city code and putting it in the rear — which in this case means fronting 71st Avenue.

“He’s following all the city rules to the letter, but he’s not following the spirit of the rules,” Zorb says. “They would not let us build one in our front yard.”

Spevak says he reached out early to Zorb and showed him his plans, distributing fliers to neighbors and attending a neighborhood meeting. Under city code, he wasn’t obliged to do any of that, as he didn’t need any adjustments to build the ADU.

Neighbors not mollified

In response to neighbor concerns, Spevak moved the ADU three feet back, so it’s now eight feet from the sidewalk. He added a window on the side facing Zorb’s house, to minimize charges he was erecting a wall.

But Spevak wanted the two condos near the garden, which has the best southern exposure.

“I did compromise on the design,” Spevak says. “As a developer, I’ve got to balance the regulations, the concerns of neighbors, and the joy of future residents.”

He also points out that city rules would allow a developer to tear down the farmhouse and put up two large houses, because it’s a corner lot.

Spevak’s reputation as a progressive developer, and his advocacy for creative infill projects as Portland faces a housing shortage, earned him a new seat on the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission this year.

Spevak apologized that his project has taken longer to build due to other demands, leaving a plywood jungle and a fence covered with barbed wire a bit too long. But he’s confident the neighbors’ ire will ease when the project is finished and they’ll see that it’s an attractive home.

“There’s a certain resistance to change in every neighborhood,” he observes.

But his attempts to please neighbors didn’t win him any points.

“Eli talked a lot about community and building community; we tried to convince him that the whole neighborhood was a community,” Zorb says.

“It’s not like we’re totally against ADUs. We just didn’t think this was positioned well,” he says. “Maybe we think that ADUs should have more regulations instead of less.”

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