New ADU Rules Coming to Malibu, Eventually

An under-construction garage (center) with an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in the background 

In an incredibly complicated process, Malibu is faced with integrating new state laws on accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—often called “granny flats” or “guest houses.” 

The state wants a streamlined process that makes it easier for property owners to add a separate living unit that can either be rented out or used to accommodate family, like an elderly parent, thus helping to bolster the supply of affordable housing in California. But Malibu’s location in the Coastal Zone gives Malibu more regulatory power. Now, the city is trying to figure out just what regulations are necessary and permissible.  

Under the new state rules, once a city’s planning department deems a homeowner’s application for an ADU to be complete, it will only have 60 days to process it without public hearings, appeals or staff reports. The state’s new rules to encourage development of ADUs went into effect in 2017, but Malibu’s attempt to integrate those changes into its local coastal program (LCP) and municipal zoning ordinances was a long-delayed process due to the Woolsey Fire, the pandemic and the passage of additional state rules in 2020. 

Last Thursday’s special planning commission meeting was the first time the planning department staff’s proposed changes to the LCP and zoning were presented in a public hearing since Sept. 4, 2018; the staff report was nearly 60 pages long.

“This is a complicated and difficult ordinance,” commission chair Jeff Jennings said, “and I’ve been reading ordinances like this for 50 years.”

Assistant City Attorney Trevor Rusin pointed out that “Malibu has more discretion than other cities to make changes [to the state’s blanket rules on ADUs] because we’re one of the few cities to be entirely within the Coastal Zone,” and the new rules have to comply with the California Coastal Act of 1976.

Planning consultant Joyce Parker-Bozylinski presented the department’s proposals, beginning with the application process for an ADU: The project would first be reviewed for compliance with the LCP. 

A “junior ADU” or “JADU,” which is created by partitioning off space in a single-family dwelling with its own private entrance and kitchenette isn’t considered “development” under the Coastal Act, so the coastal program wouldn’t apply to that; nor would the local coastal program apply to ADUs attached to the main house or created from space inside an existing dwelling or accessory building, like a garage.

Due to the fact that the entire City of Malibu is designated a “Very High Fire Severity Zone,” the planning department proposed safety regulations for an ADU that require two means of vehicular access to the neighborhood, as well as fire sprinklers, parking and increased side and rear yard setbacks. 

The requirement for two means of vehicular access to a neighborhood, depending on how it is ultimately defined by the city, could conceivably eliminate large swaths of Malibu from being eligible to build ADUs.

State law establishes a minimum height of 16 feet for ADUs, although the planning department recommended 18 feet. There was much discussion on this topic, which was not resolved. Some commissioners pointed out that many main houses are only 11 feet tall, which would make the ADU taller than the main house.

The city’s proposed amendments would prohibit all ADUs and JADUs from being used as short-term rentals.

The square footage of an ADU was not resolved at this meeting, although 1,200 square feet was the limit for those who lost a home in the Woolsey Fire and bought a prefab unit to live in until the house was rebuilt. The usual limit is a maximum of 900 square feet with an extra 400 square feet for a garage; 220 square feet is the minimum. No impact fees would be charged for ADUs less than 750 square feet.

Other long discussions centered on whether the square footage of an ADU should count toward the “Total Developed Square Footage” (TDSF) of the property; as well as the state’s required setbacks.

Jason and Elizabeth Riddick of Malibu West both made public comments critical of how Malibu proposed to handle these issues. 

“State law is telling cities to stop blocking ADUs, and yet Malibu is blocking them,” Elizabeth said.

“Our tiny proposed ADU, with zero impacts, would be prohibited by this flawed draft LCP because it slightly exceeds the TDSF and doesn’t quite meet the setback requirements,” Jason stated. “Lot coverage formulas and setback rules are not part of the Coastal Act, and can’t be used to block ADUs.”

Resident Helmut Meissner said he didn’t think it was fair that property owners building a detached ADU would have to spend a lot more time and money to get project approval than someone doing a garage conversion or an attached ADU, under the proposed rules.

“There are ways to exempt detached ADUs while still complying with the Coastal Act,” he stated.

A whole host of other potential issues that will need to be resolved in the future was raised by both commissioners and the public: rent control, view obstruction, HOAs, neighbor privacy, neighborhood character, not using the ADU for its intended purpose, whether ADUs should be allowed in a geologically unstable area, rehabs wanting ADUs, rental rate reporting, increase in population density as a result of ADUs, and better definitions of parking and public transit access.

The Malibu Planning Commission voted unanimously to continue the discussions at a future special meeting. Anyone with an interest in the ADU issues or building an ADU is encouraged to make public comments and get involved.