Othello OKs accessory dwelling units after long meeting

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Charles H. Featherstone/Sun Tribune Othello City Council member Eugene Bain speaking during last Monday’s regular council meeting.

OTHELLO — After a marathon meeting lasting more than three hours, the Othello City Council on Monday approved an ordinance governing the construction of accessory dwelling units in the city.

However, the council was deeply divided about the ordinance, and in the end, cast a 3-3 tie (council member Genna Dorow was absent) that had to be broken by Mayor Shawn Logan.

“With this ordinance, we’re trying to govern, and we’re trying to govern in a responsible way,” Logan said just before casting the tie-breaking vote. “We’re not making it simple … but we’re not making it impossible.”

The ordinance creates a new section of the city code that would finally allow homeowners in areas zoned for multi-family housing to build “accessory dwelling units” (AUD) — so-called mother-in-law apartments or even sheds or detached garages turned into tiny houses — so long as new units are built in accordance with the city’s existing building code, which includes separate water, sewer and electrical connections and two parking spaces.

The ordinance also requires that property owners reside in the main unit in order to rent a smaller unit.

According to council member John Lallas, the ordinance is needed to address the city’s near-zero apartment vacancy rate.

“This city has no vacancies,” he said. “How can we address that? You can get apartment complexes built, which takes a large amount of funding to do.”

“Or,” he continued, “You can approve ADUs and govern it with an ordinance that will allow people to create these units that will immediately get people a place, a dwelling to live in.”

However, council members were concerned that the ordinance would allow portions of the city to become too dense, and would not effectively compel the upgrading of many of the roughly 80 existing illegal ADUs across the city.

“If we don’t enforce it, it will look like a labor camp,” said council member Angel Garza, who is also a major real estate developer in Othello. “I’m against it, but if we can enforce this, if we pass it, there will be a flood of permits. I know who they are, and they aren’t going to stay in the house.”

“They’re going to rent both of them,” he added.

Building Inspector Tim Unruh said both he and Code Enforcement Officer Heather Miller have seen some “squalid conditions” in the illegal ADUs scattered across town. He said his focus is to make sure every existing ADU that does not comply with city building standards at least “as safe as possible.”

And while the ordinance would compel currently existing and illegal ADUs to meet current code, Miller said the process can only work as fast as the city attorney and the courts can work.

However, Development Director Anne Henning it will likely be impossible for many of the current, non-complying ADUs to meet those standards.

“It doesn’t give additional teeth,” Henning said of the ordinance. “But it adds new requirements that existing ADUs cannot meet, and they will have to go away.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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