County commissioners returned to the topic of accessory dwelling units at a work session on Tuesday.

For years, Manatee County has explored accessory dwelling units as a means of expanding its affordable housing stock.

At a work session on Tuesday, county commissioners revisited the topic and proposed tweaks to a land development code amendment regarding ADUs, including size limitations, prohibited areas and whether to regulate them as public housing.

ADUs are considered attached or detached residential dwelling units with cooking and bathroom facilities that are “subordinate and separate from the primary dwelling unit.” For a property to qualify as an ADU, the owner must live in either the main unit or the ADU.

The proposed amendment would reduce the maximum allowed square footage by 50% — from 1,000 square feet to 500, including covered porches and balconies. It also limits the number of bedrooms to one and requires a designated off-street parking space to accommodate the ADU.

Agreeing that 500 square feet might be too small, commissioners directed county staff to increase the maximum allowed square footage to 650, including covered porches and patios.

“If you have a big yard, I think you should be able to have a bigger (ADU) than a guy with a small yard,” said District 1 Commissioner Priscilla Trace.

While mobile homes could qualify as ADUs in agricultural zoning districts, commissioners agreed that residents in those districts should be allowed different regulations, since they tend to occupy larger properties.

County planning staff floated the idea of a graduated matrix spelling out how much space an ADU can occupy on agricultural property.

“I generally say the less regulation, the better, as long as it’s clear,” said Commission Chair Betsy Benac.

Although the reduction in square footage was not specifically designed to exempt the Whitfield Residential overlay district, it does follow concerns previously raised by residents last year.

The Whitfield overlay district requires a minimum of 950 square feet for “all other residential uses” and stipulates that ADUs cannot be located within any required yard.

Tuesday’s public comments saw a resurgence of concerns from residents about parking, noise and short-term rentals. But county staff emphasized that they do not anticipate an explosion in ADU construction.

John Barnott, director of building and development services, estimated that the average cost per square foot of construction for a single-family residence in the county is between $200 and $250.

“An ADU is not something you’re going to slap up overnight,” he said.

Other changes to the land development code include discontinuing permitting of guests houses and providing a means to convert existing ones into ADUs.

Guest houses that were already permitted will be grandfathered in, and the number of ADUs or grandfathered guest houses would be limited to one per property.

Over the past 10 years, the county has issued about 70 permits for guest houses, according to Bill O’Shea, of building and development services.

“This fear that everyone’s going to throw (an ADU) in their backyard is never going to materialize,” said Glen Gibelina, who converts shipping containers into affordable homes. “You guys have approved more houses in one day” than guest house permits in 10 years, he said.

ADUs will not be included in population density calculations. They will also be prohibited in the county’s coastal evacuation area and coastal high hazard area overlay districts.

Under the amendment, privacy between ADUs and their neighboring properties would be prioritized over privacy between ADUs and their principal unit.

For example, windows on a detached, ground-level ADU facing neighboring properties must either be opaque or screened by foliage or a fence. For detached ADUs atop a garage, windows facing neighboring properties must be opaque.

In a letter addressed to county commissioners, the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee expressed support for the amendment, calling ADUs “a great tool that communities can utilize to diversify the housing stock and address some common housing issues we face here in Manatee County.”

“We have heard the concern from some homeowners about how an ADU next door would negatively affect their home values and quality of life,” the letter said. “The County has provided numerous concessions for concerned residents and we believe it is time to move forward with this proposal.”

District 4 Commissioner Misty Servia acknowledged the county’s affordable housing problem, citing residents in Pride Park who she said are “teaming up on housing.”

“We need affordable housing desperately,” she said. “But I think we also have to consider the existing neighborhoods, and we do have to think about the worst case scenario so that it doesn’t happen.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau survey data from 2013-2017, Manatee County residents face limited housing choices. Single-family detached homes accounted for 58% of the county’s housing properties, while multi-family units made up 21%.

House Bill 1339, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, leaves the matter of affordable housing and ADUs up to the discretion of local governments. But county staff recommended against regulating ADUs as affordable housing.

“To me, it seems like we’re contradicting ourselves if we’re going to say that an accessory dwelling unit could not be considered as affordable housing,” said District 2 Commissioner Reggie Bellamy.

But regulating ADUs as affordable housing would create a “high burden for homeowners” who would have to ensure that their tenants are income-qualified, according to Geri Lopez, director of development and economic opportunity.

“We just felt that overall, given the size of the units, they would just naturally be more affordable,” she said.

At-large Commissioner Carol Whitmore noted that ADUs were never intended to generate more income for property owners.

But Valerie Guillory, executive director of Trinity Without Borders, said the additional income has been instrumental in her organization’s fight against homelessness.

Trinity Without Borders builds its homes with a main unit and an accessory unit so owners can decide which one they live in and which one they rent out, she told commissioners.

“The ADU concept keeps two entities from returning to homelessness because the owner has additional revenue, and the otherwise additional occupant most likely has a home they can afford,” she said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, county commissioners also supported the idea of affidavits notifying prospective buyers of the usage limitations regarding ADUs.

The amendment will go to the planning commission for review in October before its first reading by the board of county commissioners in November. Then, it will move to an adoption hearing in December.

“It’s the furthest we’ve been since 2010,” said Whitmore.