Four former hotel properties along Hwy. 9, including the “Toll House” property and the former “Wagon Wheel” motel in Felton, have applied for inclusion in a newly proposed “Permanent Room Housing Combining Zone District” under consideration by the Santa Cruz County Planning Commission.

This new general plan amendment is aimed at recognizing, regulating and legalizing permanent occupancy in old, obsolete hotels, motels and tourist cabins — many of which are already rented on a permanent basis. County Planning staff has been working collaboratively with some of these property owners to develop an ordinance with “reasonable use and development standards” that will encourage these owners to make permanent residency “legal” under the new zoning ordinance.

The proposed Permanent Room Housing (PRH) Combining Zone District is aimed at increasing the supply of affordable housing, especially on properties that have smaller, single room occupancy units with bathrooms and kitchens that are already “affordable by design”, but are currently either vacant, not permitted for permanent occupancy (30 days or more) or are considered “non-conforming uses” under current regulations. The proposed PRH Combining Zoning District would also allow assisted living facilities, convalescent homes, congregate care and other transient accommodations to convert to permanent rental housing if they meet the development standards proposed in the new ordinance.

A public hearing on proposed PRH Combining Zone District was held on Jan. 23 by the County Planning Commission, which included the applications of five property owners for nine properties to be permitted under the new ordinance, five of which are in the San Lorenzo Valley along Hwy. 9.

Planning Commissioners decided to separate the applications from property owners from the approval of the new ordinance, and returned the proposed ordinance to staff to increase parking requirements and the level of review required for permits under the proposed ordinance, according to Daisy Allen, senior planner the County’s Planning Department. Another public hearing for the proposed ordinance will be held by the Planning Commission on Feb. 13.

County planning staff identified 14 former motel/hotel “opportunity sites” in the unincorporated areas of the county that are already being used as permanent housing, with a total of 106 units, but do not conform to current zoning rules that allow this use. Permanent housing in these former hotels /motels and care facilities is considered illegal, or “non-conforming” to current regulations, and owners are generally not allowed to get building permits to renovate, expand or build additional units on these properties. The inability to get permits to upgrade these units often results in neglect and deterioration of this housing stock, which the proposed ordinance is seeking to remedy.

The use and development standards for housing units included in the proposed ordinance follow the State Uniform Housing Code of at least 120 square feet for one habitable room that can house two occupants, and an additional 50 square feet for each additional occupant. Requirements for kitchen and bathroom facilities are specified in the ordinance, and generally follow the minimum requirements of single room occupancy ordinances from other jurisdictions, including a “limited food preparation area”.

Because the ordinance will be applied to existing structures, some of which are old tourist cabins built decades ago, these units will not have to meet all existing building codes, or require accessibility upgrades, but will need to meet basic health and safety codes based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Quality Standards.

Planning Commissioners recommended the level of review for properties to be “legalized” under the new ordinance be increased from a “Level IV” review to a “Level VI” review, requiring a public hearing by the Planning Commission before approval. The proposed ordinance does not include any “below market” rent restrictions for units approved under the ordinance. Planning Commissioners also recommended restrictions on short-term rentals for units included under the ordinance.

“These properties can serve an important role in addressing the housing crises by converting rooms or cabins to housing units that are affordable by design due to small unit size … by creating a regular pathway for permanent housing on these properties, the County can offer the potential to recognize a much-needed affordable housing option,” according to the staff report for the Jan. 23 Planning Commission meeting. The ordinance is scheduled for another Planning Commission hearing on Feb. 13.

Contact the Press Banner at pbeditor@pressbanner.com or (831)438-2500.

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