Accessory dwellings debate takes center stage

Some Durango residents fear becoming like Aspen

If there was one point of consensus in a debate about accessory dwelling units, typified by the alley cottages located behind much larger homes, it’s that speakers at a public forum on Tuesday did not want to see Durango turn into another Aspen.

They were concerned about the future implications of allowing or not allowing new accessory dwellings. By frequently citing Aspen, they said they did not want Durango to turn into a soulless city that has replaced its historic neighborhoods with McMansions and its downtown businesses with yuppie wine bars.

People in Durango want to “live in a village. They don’t want a schmaltzy Aspen,” said Mike MacDonald.

MacDonald spoke in favor of accessory dwelling units. He said cities such as Portland, Ore., have successfully increased their neighborhoods’ residential density downtown to create vibrant and diverse communities.

Proponents also said that it has become trendy for professionals to live close to downtown in loft-style apartments.

Because of hard times, creating more rental property is economically necessary because “it’s so hard to get a (home) loan,” said Sarah Wright.

Many speakers identified themselves as owning large residential lots. They said they could benefit from the additional income of a new rental unit on their property. Others said an accessory dwelling could house an adult child returning home from graduate school or an aging parent who comes to stay for months at a time.

Opponents responded that allowing for accessory dwelling would destroy the character of their neighborhoods, especially East Third Avenue and Animas City, by exacerbating congestion and parking problems and creating slum conditions.

“It won’t take an architect to turn a garage into (an apartment),” said David McHenry, who also asked, “How much rental property does Durango need?”

Saying that half the homes in Durango are already rental units, McHenry wondered if Durango would become “75 percent rental” if it allowed for accessory dwelling units.

The City Council will be preoccupied with the accessory dwelling units issue for the next few months because the council has made a goal of adopting a new land-use development code in early April, before as many as three new councilors are sworn in.

Tuesday’s informal forum was in response to residents’ requests to speak directly to the council about an issue that many fear is being forced onto Durango by real estate interests.

“I call it a process because they’re not really listening to you – they’re just going through a process,” McHenry said in an interview.

The current proposal is to create new regulations to allow for accessory dwelling units in the older neighborhoods closest to downtown and along North Main Avenue but excluding the old Animas City neighborhood on the western side of the 32nd Street bridge.

Aside from duplexes and allowances for as many as five unrelated people to live in the same home, Durango, on paper at least, currently does not allow for accessory dwellings even though they are a common sight along the city’s alleys.

Proponents argue that new regulations would help with enforcement and allow the city to get in control of the situation.

Opponents respond that the regulations would not make a difference because the city has such a poor record of enforcement. New regulations would just open the door to more of the same.

In response to criticisms, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said the city made changes in its budget this year to allow two city employees to concentrate full-time on code-enforcement issues.

LeBlanc said the city also prefers education and working cooperatively with code violators because the “heavy-handed approach does not work in the long run.”

jhaug@durangoherald.com