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Board considers ordinance that would allow tiny homes on wheels

Two sets of pictures of nearly identical tiny homes, one set with wheels and one without. Text from a document explains that the un-wheeled set is permissible, while the ones with wheels are not.
A document submitted to the Board of Supervisors by the Tiny Home Industry Association, advocating an ordinance permitting moveable tiny homes as habitable dwelling units.
Mendocino County Board of Supervisors agenda.
Two sets of tiny homes, identical except that one set has wheels and one does not. The ones with wheels are considered RVs, not homes.

The Board of Supervisors considered recommendations and concerns about allowing moveable tiny homes as permanent living units. Currently, tiny homes are allowed with a standard building permit, but they are considered RVs if they are on wheels.

November 14, 2022 — A discussion about establishing regulations for tiny homes on wheels led to a call for more regulations, more freedom, and more flexibility in housing at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

After the Board updated the building code, as it’s required to do every three years, supervisors turned their attention to recommendations for moveable tiny homes, which would be licensed and registered with the DMV but also required to meet the standards of stick-built homes, including sanitation hookups and water supply, fire agency requirements, and building permits.

Lindsay Wood, the “tiny home lady,” made her case, saying that tiny homes are catching on all over the state as a solution to several persistent economic woes.

She told the Board she had had her own tiny home built in Ukiah, and that she is working on developing a company to build more in the area. “The Ukiah High School is actively building two tiny homes,” through a Career Technical Education program, she said. “We have a lot of opportunities to train our youth and also house more people, offering workforce housing, agriculture housing, and so much more, so that people like myself, who grew up here since 1980, can actually afford to live here.”

Supervisor Glenn McGourty asked Planning and Building Director Julia Krog about the current state of tiny home regulations in the county. She told him it is permissible to build a tiny home that is not on wheels, “as long as you meet building code standards.”

“So this is just a portable version of a tiny home,” he surmised.

“That’s correct,” she replied. “Right now you are only able to use things like recreational vehicles that are built on a chassis for movement for temporary uses.”

But a recommendation that tiny homes be situated on a concrete or asphalt pad drew criticism from Supervisor Dan Gjerde as well as environmental consultants who spoke about the need for a grading ordinance.

Gjerde, who has long been an advocate for additional dwelling units and affordable housing policies, asked that the regulations not establish permanent concrete foundations as the default standard. And he expressed some skepticism about the whole idea.

“We don’t really want to see a bunch of asphalt or concrete placed where it's not needed,” he said. “And you know, these tiny homes may be here today, gone tomorrow. Who’s to say how long they’ll stay on a piece of property. It could be something of a fad.”

He went further, explaining that he was concerned about the possibility of tiny homes affecting the character of the neighborhood, particularly if there was not a more conventional house on the property as a primary residence. “If in 2022, or 2023, we suddenly say, well, you know, for decades you've needed to build a stick-built house on a foundation, but beginning now, a neighboring vacant property could have nothing on it more than a tiny home, especially when you’re talking smaller parcels in more suburban conditions, I think it really could be out of character with the rest of the neighborhood,” he said.

Supervisor Ted Williams leaped in with a defense of personal liberties and the environment.

“I’m weighing consistency, what people expect in a neighborhood, with government intruding on an individual’s right to live in a small house,” he argued. “And imagine a neighborhood where all parcels on all sides are developed with 2500 square foot houses. And somebody decides they want to live in a 300 square foot house. Maybe that’s all they can afford. Maybe that’s all the resources they want to use. I don’t know if it’s government’s job to say no, you have to build a large house. What’s wrong with somebody choosing to live in a very minimalist, I mean if we all did that, we would have less of a climate impact.”

Gjerde worried that residents of tiny homes would spend most of their time outdoors, possibly making noise that would disturb the neighbors. McGourty took the opportunity to point out the lack of a noise ordinance.

“Noise is noise,” he pointed out. “And I have neighbors who live two miles from me, but their big diesel pump is right next door to me. I think that we should have standards for noise in Mendocino County that don’t exceed 55 decibels at the property line, which is kind of standard in a lot of communities, and that would address the issue in the end.”

Two environmental consultants who had hoped to speak about a presentation on riparian and wetlands protections added their concerns about creating a policy that they thought could lead to unregulated grading. That item was rescheduled, but Estelle Clifton and Heather Morrison warned of possible environmental damage if tiny homes are allowed under a ministerial permit, an “over the counter” authorization that's granted to projects that meet local zoning requirements.

Clifton introduced herself as a biological consultant and registered professional forester who has worked in the county for 20 years. “When the county as the lead agency grants permission to bulldoze habitats,” she said, “as the lead agency, the county is responsible for that action. And in other counties, where they ministerially grant such allowances, they do have a checklist that guarantees certain protections are adhered to. For it to be a ministerial process, there has to be real evidence that there really is an exemption from environmental damage.”

Krog said some applicants would need a grading permit, but there’s not currently a grading ordinance.

“They would have to go through the standard grading permit with our office, if they trigger a grading permit,” she said. “It really depends on the amount of cubic yards that they’re moving. And in order to trigger a grading permit with our office, it’s a pretty substantial amount of cubic yards that you do need to move.” She added that before her tenure, the county “did work on a grading permit at one time. I understand that that got shelved at a certain point, and there are several boxes that relate to it, but I don’t believe it’s ever come back.”

Ultimately, Krog expects the tiny home ordinance by itself will be minimal. It’s the deferred discussion about environmental protections that could change the housing landscape.

“If you treat these like we do all other structures, it really is the status quo,” she said. “Creating regulations related to stream and wetland and riparian corridors would really change the way that development occurs within this county.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.