Zoning, codes, and permits, oh my
August 2, 2014 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I may have the opportunity to renovate my friend's detached garage into a little house/apartment for me. Location is Oakland, CA. I have a few specific questions now, but more importantly, I anticipate having many more and want to know how I can get answers without putting you guys back to work every week. Things are very much in a preliminary/investigating feasibility stage at this point. It's a little wordy; I'm trying to answer likely questions and also convey how tangly this all feels.

I have read most of the relevant parts of the Oakland Planning document (here), as well as a number of other assorted documents I could dig up (e.g. this bit on secondary units and the design review manual). A lot of things are still unclear to me.

In general, how can I get clarification on these documents? Can I really just show up at the planning department with my questions? Even though I am nowhere near being ready to apply for permits? Also, I normally avoid the phone (largely because I would really prefer information in writing that I can refer back to), but if you tell me the zoning hotline is actually helpful, I'll give it a whirl. The "online zoning information request form" on this page does not appear to actually work.

At this point, I would prefer free options just to see if the primary obstacles can be overcome. If the project is a go, we'll be happy to consult the appropriate professionals to get all the small details worked out.

Also, some of the documents seem fairly old -- 2011 is not so bad, but the design review manual is actually titled "Interim Design Review..." and is dated 2005. I found it on the city's website. Are these likely the most up to date versions? If not, where would I find them?

Here a couple specific bits I am trying to work out for now. The lot is zoned RM-3. These two questions are a maybe a little entangled.
1. The parking requirement seems to be the first main stumbling block to sort out. The main planning document specifies that we'd need two parking spots for two units, but never specifies that they be independent (i.e. side-by-side). The extra bit on secondary units says those can be tandem (i.e. two deep) if the secondary unit is under 500 square feet (which it probably would be), except that every unit needs an independent spot. So the 500 square foot thing only seems to come into play if the zoning requires three spots, but we'd only be required to have two spots. I have found no clarification on the parking issue if there are two primary units. How frequently are exceptions made here -- never, rarely, commonly? The lot is narrow but deep, so side-by-side parking may not be doable.

If the tandem parking requires an exception (variance?) and that's doable, can we have it cleared before investing time and money into building plans?

2. The RM-3 zoning permits either a two-family dwelling or a single-family dwelling with a secondary unit. Can the two buildings (main house and detached garage renovated into living space) be considered a two-family dwelling? This seems likely better, since secondary units have more restrictions on them. But I can't find any clear line between what counts as another primary unit vs. a secondary unit.

I know there are a lot of illegal/code-violating secondary units out there, but we will only proceed if we can do this legitimately, so it's important I figure out how to get all our ducks in a row.
posted by ktkt to Law & Government (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would call to see if you could make an appointment to speak with an inspector. My favorite phrase to ask someone is, "Can you help me..." People LOVE to be helpful. So I'd call the hotline and say, "Can you please help me, we're in the preliminary stages of doing X. I want to be sure that it's up to code and zoned and before we get started we wanted to pick someone's brain. Can we make an appointment to meet with someone? What do you recommend?"

Take it from there.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:06 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The planners I work with also love helping people who are polite and trying to do the right thing. At my local govt dept calling is faster than email; we also have a planner on duty everyday to pop out to the lobby and answer questions in person. I'd definitely give them a whirl before you write them off! :)
posted by jrobin276 at 3:13 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I haven't worked with Oakland, but both the planning and building departments of my population 60k North Bay town are happy to answer questions if you show up at the desk, or if you email. Although sometimes if you show up at the desk they'll say "can we have someone call or email you?"

Both of those questions are perfectly suited to the planning department, I'd ask them. Really, they want to help you, and exactly you, because they totally understand that you could (probably) do this without involving them.
posted by straw at 4:45 PM on August 2, 2014

I just went through some complicated planning/permitting stuff in another city, and I had no problems getting my questions answered by phone. Email was a lost cause as an initial form of contact but worked great for continued questions after an initial conversation. The best of course is to go in and sit down with a planner who can bring up the parcel on their computer, look at the zoning and setbacks and so on, and talk you through the process.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:48 PM on August 2, 2014

Even professionals call the code enforcement folks to get preliminary clarifications so it's perfectly fine for you to call them and I can assure you, they'd rather you call earlier than later when you may become frustrated.

Once in a while you run across a person with a chip on their shoulder so just exit the conversation as quickly as reasonable and be sure to speak with a different person the next time. Usually, the xode folks are super helpful.
posted by mightshould at 5:06 PM on August 2, 2014

Best answer: I would go in directly to the planning office- they are less good on the phone in Oakland than they are in person, IME. Write things down, double check information. You don't have to give them the exact address, but it is helpful if you draw a little map of house/garage/property line/ neighbor's garage/&c.

Usually with the detached garages built with the bungalows around here, the problem is setbacks when converting to living space. Having a stove/water heater/furnace within a setback area is a problem due to fire and proximity with neighbor' homes. That's why people can generally be allowed to legally turn garages into studios and offices, but not living quarters.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:28 PM on August 2, 2014

Yes, go in person to the counter. This is what they're there for! If it helps at all the folks I know who work the counter in the Oakland Planning dept are super nice.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:44 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The ONLY place to get these answers is from the Planning and Building Department.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:31 AM on August 3, 2014

Response by poster: Okay, I'm sold; toting myself down to the office this week.
posted by ktkt at 10:05 AM on August 3, 2014

Response by poster: Update on a walk-in visit to the planning office:

Not bad! I went shortly after lunch, had about a 30min wait. I got most of my big questions answered, and the planner gave a few helpful tips on how we might arrange things. He also gave me handouts confirming all the current requirements.

More on this project later -- it turns out we need bigger setbacks than I realized, so some creative thinking is in order to be able to move forward.
posted by ktkt at 10:21 PM on August 5, 2014

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