Raleigh City Council member Russ Stephenson is confident a six-year stalemate on accessory dwelling units will finally come to an end tonight, as the council is expected to pass regulations that will essentially require homeowners to get their neighbors’ permission through a petition process before building backyard cottages, a mechanism referred to as an overlay district

The city’s planning commission opposes the overlay district proposal, calling it too complicated and arguing that it will hinder rather than encourage people to actually build ADUs. But the overlay district has the support of the majority of the council, and after a half-decade of debate, they’re ready to get it over with, as Stephenson posted on Twitter this morning. 

New Accessory Dwelling Unit rules today? In 2012-13, Council worked on citywide ADU rules, but was polarized & stalemated at 4-4 until now. The new compromise will allow ADUs in pilot areas, as a first step to citywide adoption. Expect 5 or more votes in favor. (cont’d …)

— Russ Stephenson (@RussForRaleigh) February 5, 2019

(… cont’d) The red chart shows how polarized views have stalled ADU progress. The green chart shows how compromise leads to progress and effective governing. pic.twitter.com/IEhUAMF8Bd

— Russ Stephenson (@RussForRaleigh) February 5, 2019

Stephenson drew that chart by hand for a Young Republicans panel last year. It speaks to a problem he believes is widespread in government: the inability to compromise. He has consistently said he would opt for more aggressive ADU policies if it were up to him, but he needs five votes.

“Any compromise is by definition imperfect,” he told the INDY Tuesday morning. “It won’t satisfy anyone totally, but the idea is to say, look, our job as councilors is to be an effective governing body and we’ve, in this particular case, we’ve gone six years with strongly divided opinions about this thing, and that is not good. On the federal level, it ends up with a shutdown. I think it’s really important for us to look for a five-vote governing majority so we can get stuff done.”

That majority—Stephenson, Stef Mendell, Kay Crowder, David Cox, and Dickie Thompson—all sit on the council’s Growth and Natural Resources Committee, and tend to oppose granting property owners the ability to build ADUs by right. The rules they support would instead require homeowners who want to live in an overlay district—and be allowed to build ADUs on their property—to distribute ballots to neighbors within a ten-acre area. If at least a quarter of those neighbors respond to the petition, and half of those who respond support the overlay district, it will be approved. 

While council members in the majority have called this process “democratic,” the planning commission has recommended against it. Commission chairman Rodney Swink said in January that the ADU process should be “fairly simple and straightforward, easily accomplished,” while also protecting neighbors’ interests. Requiring overlay district, the commission argues, is too cumbersome and could discourage people from building ADUs—and give neighbors a veto over what people can do on their property.

The commission recommended that the council look into alternatives such as a special-permit or special-use process. Stephenson insists that both those options would be more complicated than the overlay process.

The debate over ADUs dates back to at least 2013, when the regulations were slated to go in the city’s unified development ordinance but were stricken from the final code. Residents in the Mordecai neighborhood successfully petitioned the council to bring ADUs back up for discussion in 2016, but the issue has crawled through lengthy committee meetings and the planning commission ever since. 

The Wake County Board of Commissioners has pushed its municipalities to allow ADUs, which it sees as a gentle way to add much-needed density to neighborhoods while also supplying what’s known as missing-middle housing, which is vital to keeping rent prices in check. 

Council member Nicole Stewart says she’ll vote against the overlay requirement. With Mayor Nancy McFarlane expected to miss the meeting—she is sick—Stewart may be the only one. 

“I think we need a diversity of housing options. [That’s] what we’re hearing from residents throughout the city, and allowing ADUs by right is the easiest way to add a new housing option,” Stewart says. “Having heard from the planning commission, who denied the text change for being too onerous and saying it would result in few if any ADUs, I can’t support an overlay.”

The council is holding a public hearing on ADUs tonight at 7:00 p.m.. A vote is expected to follow.