TO: Town Council and Local Planning Agency

FROM: Bill Spikowski

DATE: June 9, 1997

SUBJECT: "Mother-in-Law" Apartments -- For Discussion on June 17, 1997


Last October the Local Planning Agency began to examine the issue of "mother-in-law" or accessory apartments at Fort Myers Beach. This memorandum:



Many communities are tangled in an ongoing debate over how to properly regulate accessory apartments. At Fort Myers Beach these apartments are known somewhat euphemistically as "mother-in-law apartments" despite their common use for out-of-town guests and frequent use as rentals for an additional source of income.

This debate is particularly complex at Fort Myers Beach because of several factors: the attraction of the beaches to out-of-town guests; Lee County's historically lax and loosely enforced codes, and a strong resort economy. Scattered rental apartments in many different kinds of buildings are just one more variation on your already broad variety of housing types, which also include hotels; interval-ownership resorts operated like hotels; and condominium buildings operated like interval-ownership resorts. In your older subdivisions, two- and three-unit buildings had been legal for many years even on fairly small lots. Discussion of mother-in-law apartments at Fort Myers Beach is often so broad that it includes small apartments that cannot be seen from the street; apartments on the ground floor of elevated homes; conventional duplexes; and many other variations.

Accessory apartments cause little concern when they are in commercial zones, and only modest concern when they are a long-established presence in a neighborhood. If they are small enough and not routinely rented out, neighbors may not even be aware of their existence.

In many classic urban areas housing types were widely mixed, rather than the homogeneous single-family neighborhoods that have become dominant in the past several decades. There is a counter-trend today toward reintroducing a wider variety of housing types to accommodate the variety of types and sizes of households in our communities, including elderly people living alone, starter apartments for the young, and small apartments for single working people. Our task here is to differentiate between a "desirable mix of housing types" and "undesirable intrusions into settled neighborhoods," and to avoid further crowding in your already-congested community.

This task will be one of the hardest to face in your new comprehensive plan. The rules on apartments changed drastically with the advent of zoning in 1962, and then again in 1984 when the floodplain regulations and the Lee County Comprehensive Plan both took effect. These various rules have been only loosely enforced, almost always on a complaint-driven basis (which often occurs as retaliation for unrelated neighborhood disputes). The result is the worst of all worlds: complex rules that are unevenly enforced. Many residents hesitate to encourage strict enforcement under these circumstances because it could ultimately affect so many of their neighbors and friends in ways that aren't at all clear.

This task is a political challenge as well as a technical one. Among the competing political interests are:

  • Many town residents are hoping that most mother-in-law apartments will be banned because they've had bad experiences with them in their neighborhood and they want it to stop.
  • Many other town residents hope that their apartments will be made legal, if in fact they're not legal now.
  • The state government generally opposes more housing units being built on overcrowded barrier islands. The state has the power to reject your comprehensive plan if this is a likely result of your policies.
  • The federal government is becoming increasingly vigilant about illegal space being enclosed below the "flood elevation." They generally don't care how many units are in each building, but they care greatly if they're not properly elevated.
  • For its part, the town government will inevitably want its rules obeyed, but it isn't yet clear what those rules should be.



    We can summarize our goals in a broad sense by recognizing that, in recent years, some of the rules may have been too strict, but often those same rules have been leniently applied and enforced. What is needed is not just tightening up the rules, or just loosening them, but rather clarifying the rules for all future construction in a way that makes sense specifically for Fort Myers Beach. Then the new rules can be enforced evenly.

    At the same time, we must recognize that many older apartments are completely legal and shouldn't be the targets of repeated investigations based on neighbors' complaints.

    Another goal, one that cannot always be accomplished, is to try not to reward lawbreakers at the expense of others similarly situated. This would occur, for instance, by legalizing all existing apartments on a block while forbidding all new ones.

    And we must avoid causing new problems while solving old ones. We must not legalize unsafe building techniques that would endanger future unknowing residents. We must not take any actions that would threaten the availability of flood insurance to the entire community. We should try to avoid the inadvertent loss of what adjoining lot owners have reasonably expected to be strictly single-family neighborhoods. We need to avoid overcrowding existing neighborhoods and aggravating the already-excessive evacuation times along Lee County's coastline.



    The LPA was given the task of formulating a direction on accessory apartments for consideration by the Town Council. During the initial discussions last fall, a broad outline of regulatory techniques were considered, ranging from very lenient to very strict:

    The LPA formulated an interim policy on accessory apartments last November. The LPA decided:

    (1) The Town should not take any steps to legalize any ground-level apartments that were built after 1984 in violation of Lee County's floodplain regulations, because to do so would endanger flood insurance coverage for other Fort Myers Beach property owners. The Town should also avoid legalizing any violations of fire or life safety codes that may exist.

    (2) Apartments built before 1984 should be eligible for more lenient treatment because they pre-dated both the floodplain regulations and the density restrictions of the 1984 Lee Plan. These older apartments will not receive any kind of blanket amnesty, for a variety of reasons including multiple apartments on a single-family lot, or being built too near property lines, or with too much lot coverage. But apartments meeting reasonable standards (to be established) may become eligible for a voluntary registration process that may include:

    (3) Certain subdivisions, particularly older ones that already have a variety of housing types, should be considered for a new form of regulations that would ensure "compatible building types" but not necessarily forbid all accessory apartments. These regulations would include simple design standards to ensure against structures that are incompatible with the neighborhood character. But they might allow accessory apartments, limited types of "home occupations," or other uses on a more lenient basis than allowed by the current zoning.

    This subject was then discussed in general terms at the "Designing Our Town" community workshop, and specific suggestions were solicited at the second community workshop. In April the LPA refined its interim policy, particularly item (3) above, and is now seeking ratification or comments by the Town Council before proceeding further.

    The LPA's proposed policy defining "compatible building types" will be presented in full at the end of this memorandum, after a look at the question of "just makes an apartment out of a suite of rooms" plus details of several of the alternatives that were considered.



    Under the current rules (inherited from Lee County), it is the presence of a kitchen that determines whether one or more rooms are considered to be a separate apartment. This is the standard distinction in most communities (although not the only one allowed). If a kitchen is included, each separate apartment is considered to be a full dwelling unit, equal in intensity to a free-standing house or fully equipped condominium. If a kitchen is not included, a suite of rooms including a bedroom and private bathroom can be provided for non-paying guests in any private home.

    For a second apartment in a building to be legal today, it must meet the following criteria:

  • Be located in a zoning district that allows duplexes (or apartments or condos), or have been legally built before zoning regulations were adopted in 1962 and used continuously since that time; and
  • Some negative effects of this proposal would include:


    2. Redefine accessory apartments in owner-occupied homes.

    There is a quite different approach that could be used in addition to the first alternative (or in place of it). A new definition would be created to define a limited-size accessory apartment that might be permitted in all zoning districts but only if the owner lives on the premises. (An additional requirement could be that this would apply to existing apartments only, and could not be used to allow any new apartments.) Much of the resistance to accessory apartments comes from people's bad experiences with duplexes that are rented out by absentee landowners, without the kind of close oversight that occurs with on-site management by the property owner.

    This type of apartment would be strictly limited in size, perhaps to 400 or 500 square feet, and possibly to a maximum percentage of the building's size (such as 30%). This would allow a sizable bedroom plus bathroom and kitchen, but would not accommodate larger apartments with separate living rooms. These small apartments in owner-occupied buildings would be declared as strictly "accessory" to the main unit, and could be defined as not being a separate dwelling unit, avoiding the need for any changes to the density levels in the comprehensive plan.

    These units could be kept available for family or friends, but there would be no prohibition on renting them. If they were rented, payment of the sales and tourist taxes would be required. It is not clear whether garbage collection fees or utility fees would apply in the same manner as for a duplex.

    One potential problem with this arrangement would be if unsuspecting purchasers of a home believed they could rent both units, and then made a purchase and financing decision on that basis. To avoid this problem, a requirement could be added for a document to be recorded in the public records acknowledging the status of the second apartment. This document would turn up in every title search, warning prospective purchasers if they haven't been otherwise advised of the owner-occupancy rule.

    A somewhat similar arrangement has been tried in many communities, though often with specific restrictions on who may occupy the second unit (e.g., elderly people; family members only; low- and moderate-income families only; etc.). Each restriction involves the government in an ongoing monitoring of the personal status of its residents, something to be avoided wherever possible. Another approach which had been discussed by the LPA had been allowing rentals of such units only during the winter season. However, an equal argument could be made that this is the most congested period, exactly when not to encourage a larger population. In either case, monitoring the ongoing use of a property is more intrusive than monitoring the form of the building itself.

    Some positive effects of this proposal would include:

    Some negative effects of this proposal would include:


    3. Adopt a new measure of intensity, "building bulk" rather than density by number of kitchens.

    Another approach that is used in some areas is to simply stop measuring residential density or intensity by the number of kitchens. In its place is a system that might be called "zoning by bulk," where the total floor area of a building is capped. Owners might provide two small apartments or one large one, at their sole discretion. This type of regulation is often used in the new graphic codes because it greatly simplifies the regulatory process.

    This approach usually uses a standard zoning techniques know as F.A.R. (floor area ratio). The entire square footage of floor space (including upper levels as well as ground floor space) is divided by the square footage of the lot. This ratio cannot exceed a fixed figure, for instance 0.50, set for each zoning district. Setbacks and height caps can still be applied as under your existing zoning regulations. F.A.R. has some resemblance to your current lot coverage maximums, which are often set at 40%. But the lot coverage percentages only apply to the ground floor, not upper stories, and often counts paved surfaces as well as enclosed living area.

    Some positive effects of this proposal would include:

    Some negative effects of this proposal would include:



    The third alternative listed above, although initially promising, had enough flaws that it was eliminated by the LPA from further consideration. The first and second approaches together seemed a better basis for the Town's new position on accessory apartments. Each would provide one new path to a legal apartment. The use of the first approach could also resolve the related conflict between current duplex zoning and the restrictive density cap.

    In summary, for a second apartment to be legal under this recommendation, it would either have to comply with all existing density and zoning regulations, or with any one of five exceptions. The first three exceptions are already in existence and would be retained:

    (A) If the apartment was built prior to zoning in 1962 and has been in continuous use, it is usually "legally non-conforming" under Section 34-3201 of the land development code and could continue in use until taken out of service.

    (B) If the apartment was built between 1962 and 1984, it needs to comply with all today's laws except the Lee Plan density cap of 6 units per acre and the floodplain (elevation) requirements.

    (C) If the apartment was granted a "special exception" under the terms of Section 34-177 of the land development code, then that approval would remain in effect. (This rule can only be used where a lot is large enough to meet the 6-unit-per-acre density cap.)

    Two new paths to a legal accessory apartment would be created under this recommendation, as follows:

    (D) If the building is on a lot that is zoned for two dwelling units, and the two units comply with any revised density caps that are placed in the Town's new comprehensive plan.

    (E) If the building's owner lives on the premises, and the second apartment is already in existence, and the apartment is smaller than "x" square feet.

    If an apartment could not meet the current regulations or any one of these five exceptions (A through E above), then it could not continue in use.

    This subject is on the agenda for the joint LPA-Town Council workshop on June 17 at 7:00 P.M. at Town Hall. If the Council disagrees with the LPA position, we should discuss how to modify it to make it acceptable. If the Council concurs, then this position will be put into the Future Land Use Element of the comprehensive plan and would be considered for formal adoption at public hearings in the early months of 1998.