Coach Houses: City seeks input on secondary dwellings for urban neighbourhoods

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STAFF WRITER
– The Ottawa Construction News

The Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association’s (GOHBA) new Urban Infill Council (UIC) has responded to the City of Ottawa’s request for input into proposed coach house policies, a topic that reflects the new committee’s mandate and demonstrates the challenges in developing urban development regulations and policies.

UIC chair David Renfroe says provincial policy requires the city “to allow secondary dwelling units in accessory structures” but the challenge is to set out the policy for these attached or separate living spaces, which municipal officials have defined as “coach houses.”

Renfroe said his committee has been working on the challenge, including providing planning department manager John Smit 14 accessory structure bylaws from other municipalities.

“We think coach houses are a fantastic idea,” he said. “They promote affordability and promote diversification, providing a different type of urban architecture. Sometimes they are granny suites, or they can provide secondary income for the property.”

However, there can be conflicts between coach house proposals and other infill policies. For example, should there be a less stringent rear yard setback for coach houses, or some zoning height exemptions or modifications when the coach house is attached to the main dwelling, say over a garage?

“The challenge is to have all the policies to speak with each other,” Renfroe said. “The UIC wants to work with the city and staff to avoid situations where the city is creating a continuous demand for variances which must go to the Committee of Adjustment.

Other issues include what would be the development charges on these secondary dwellings, and how developers and homeowners should deal with hydro and other utility easements.

“Another huge opportunity may be in neighbourhoods with laneways, where coach houses could be attached to the laneways, and not have security and privacy issues for the immediate neighbours.”

In some ways, the proposed city zoning bylaw changes would formalize the current informal situation where “there are a lot of coach houses now – you can see the little apartments attached to garages.”

City officials want to fast track the new rules, with a decision by next May. “There’s only four months to come to the city with a meaningful bylaw that works for all parties,” Renfroe said.

“The challenge is to determine the appropriate scale and height that neighbours, community associations and builders can all live with.”

The GOHBA also wants the city to produce a laneways map. “This would assist in creating a clearer understanding of the geographic distribution of this potential new development form, GOHBA executive director John Herbert wrote in a letter to municipal officials. “In the future, our members would very much like to participate in working through the legal and engineering challenges of laneway use, as a first and very necessary step toward opening more laneways to coach house development.”

Herbert wrote that, before proceeding to provide the Official Plan and Zoning Bylaw, “we would strongly recommend that this study begin with some collaborative research into the logistical limitations . . . including but not limited to site servicing, site grading, affordability, demographics, fire regulations, privacy issues, building construction, amenity needs, tree preservation and replanting.

“With this research, the creative process of problem solving can begin – finding creative solutions that enliven our neighbourhoods and provide good homes.”

“In the later stages of this process, we would caution that, when defining building size and height, proposed regulations should allow for architectural features,” Herbert wrote. “Designers of small houses around the world are finding new and creative ways to make living in small spaces practical and delightful. Zoning limitations should not discourage this creative process by limiting dimensions to standard minimum building practice, but allow for intelligent design solutions.”

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