Kent relaxes assessory residence regulations
© 2023 Delaware Business Times
DOVER — In a step to offer more variety in housing options, Kent County officials have successfully relaxed regulations on building accessory dwelling units.
Accessory dwelling units are smaller, independent residential units on the same lot as a single-family detached home. Known as an “in-law suite,” this type of housing can be used to provide a typically lower priced housing option for family members or even renters in single-family neighborhoods.
“If this sounds familiar, this is how housing used to work in America. Once upon a time, homeowners could add an apartment above a garage or build an addition or to be an aging parent or another family member,” Kent County Administrator Ken Decker said at the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’s “Developing Delaware” conference on Oct. 5.
The ordinance that passed in late September permits accessory dwelling units on all residential zoning districts in the county, as well as simplifying the standards for the structure. Now, these units can be half the size of the principal structure on the property. Setbacks were also cut in half, giving more space for the residence.
Kent County has permitted accessory dwelling units since 1985, but regulations on it have changed throughout the past three decades. In the 2010s, Kent County Planning Director Sarah Kiefer said there was a rise in interest in these “in-law apartments” and accessory cottages, to the point the county administration added specific language to address those uses.
But it also prompted the county administration to require those interested in building an accessory home to notify immediate neighbors. Any neighbor within 200 feet would have the right to object.
“If those neighbors objected, the applicant either didn’t move forward or had to go through the conditional use process. It was maybe 5% of applicants that did object, but at that point it’s costing time and money to this project,” Kiefer said.
The new ordinance drops that requirement entirely.
Between 1985 and August 2023, Kent County approved roughly 180 applicants for accessory dwelling units, though there could be more that did not go through the county planning process. Typically, those property owners are looking to add space for elderly parents or to give adult children space, Kiefer said.
“We typically see 10 to 15 applicants a year. But more recently there’s been more in the last several years,” she said. “Multi-generational living is becoming a lot more common.”
Though there is no prohibition on using accessory dwelling units as a rental, Kent County does require one of the houses be occupied by the property owner.
The 2023 Delaware Housing Needs Assessment tentatively shows that single-family homes continue to be the largest share of Delaware’s residences, marking 58% in 2021 and little change from the previous decade. The early report shows that southern Kent County —south of Dover and north of Milford —has the largest share of single family detached housing stock at 74%.
Most of Kent County is zoned agricultural conservation or agriculture residential, which means that high-density housing projects are less likely to happen by-right. In the last 12 months, Kiefer said that her office has approved one multi-family project near Felton.
“It’s different in every jurisdiction, and it can be tough to get that zoning. That’s a risk developers may not want to take,” she said. “Some of that is you can’t get the density in the county to justify the expense of the land and the development costs.”
Kent County is not the only one evaluating changes to its accessory dwelling unit ordinance. Last year, Milford changed its local laws to allow them in city limits, though the city is now contending with high permit fees for those who apply for it. Smyrna also opened up its zoning code to allow accessory dwelling units in certain areas with conditional approval.
“This is the bedroom community for New Castle and Sussex counties, and there is not one solution to the affordable housing problem,” Decker told the Delaware Business Times. “There’s plenty of options for four-bedroom colonial houses or luxury options on the market. We need to be open to creative solutions for our missing middle income working class residents, and simplifying regulations on these units is one way forward.”
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