Accessory Structures vs. Accessory Dwellings in Oakland, CA

We recently completed three projects in Oakland, California and found that permitting an accessory structure is the easiest permitting experience we’ve seen.   Oakland is one of the most confusing and head-spin inducing cities in regards to understanding the rules, however, it has a very helpful staff on the planning desk, at the building permit desk and the inspectors have (so far) been great as well and they make it one of the easiest places to pick up permits.

One big caveat is that all three projects were accessory structures.  These were small 200-300 square foot offices with a half bathroom.  Here is one example floor plan:

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This project is built to the standard of a high end custom home despite being just a small laundry/office/guest room.

The three projects we completed were all “over the counter” permits.  Over the counter means that the architect or owner went to the city with a set of complete plans and first went to the planning desk where the planner looked at the plans, stamped them as approved and charged a fee for the planning permit.   Then the architect or client walked a few feet over to the building desk where a building department plan checker looked at the plans, stamped them as approved and then charged a fee for the building permit.

This was allowed because this was just an accessory structure with no kitchen.

To permit an accessory dwelling with a full bath and full kitchen, Oakland is still quite manageable with a somewhat more involved permit process that will require internal review.  The hardest part is often making the two parking spaces work.

Here is a brief summary of some notes from the planning department research:

Planning Summary and Process

Your parcel qualifies for an accessory structure of approximately 500 square feet. The zoning district is RM-1 which allows for the special setback exception for accessory buildings.   The lot is in the severity 1 liquidation hazard zone. This should not have any impact on the building cost or planning fees, because of the small scope of the project. The property is not in the Hayward fault zone, landslide area, creek buffer zone, flood zone, Whip snake critical habitat zone, wild fire assessment district or historical area. So there are no other red flags which could result in extra consultant fees or permitting costs. We do not expect there to be a requirement for a geotechnical engineer (“soils report”) due to the low slope.

The controlling factor in determining the allowable floor area is 50% of the rear yard measured from the back of the house to the rear property line. Other factors which should not control are 40% total lot coverage, minimum lot size, floor area ratio and open space requirements.

The allowable building space or location is determined by front, side and rear setbacks. The entire building must be located in within 35’ of the rear property line (front setback.) There is a zero side and rear setbacks if the building meets the special setback criteria. Otherwise the side setback is 5’ and the rear is 15’. We recommend building a structure that is within the special setback criteria.

The special setback criteria requires a max wall height of 9’ and max roof height of 12’. For reference the cottage on Romona street in Albany meets this criteria exactly. A special setback accessory structure may not contain a bedroom or a full bath, but an office is ok.

The permitting process takes about four to six weeks to review an accessory structure in the city of Oakland and the process is divided into two parts, planning and building. The process begins by applying for an over the counter planning permit with 11”x17” drawings. The planning department will check for zoning code compliance and they reserve the right to take the plans in for review. Once the plans are approved by planning they will be submitted to building for review. This process may be expedited to 2 weeks for an estimated cost of $400 to $700 ($219/hr of plan check.)

Oakland Permit Fees

Zoning Fees:   $1,052

Tree permit: $280

Building permit review and building permit issuance (two fees) $3,830

Additional permits: Mechanical $200, Electrical $163, Plumbing $200.

Total cost ~$5,000.

Update on June 16, 2015: 

Dear Readers,

We write many posts so that a client can start educating themselves about different project types.  You will typically need an architect to make sure everything will work for your project.  Art Clark, one of our partner architects, has just corrected a few aspects of this blog for oakland.  Here are his added insights:

I have spent the majority of my career in Oakland, served as a planning commissioner, helped update the general plan and zoning, and managed the production of the recently-adopted the West Oakland Specific Plan.  You could consider me to be a planning/building permit expert in Oakland.  I don’t think the rules are that different in Oakland than in other places, and in some ways are more easily understood.  One key thing to understand is the terminology; which is why you blog “Accessory Structure vs. Accessory Dwelling” is very timely.  In Oakland, they use the term “Secondary Dwelling Unit” which helps to distinguish an “ADU” from an “Accessory Structure.”  In your blog, you use the ADU term which planners in Oakland will have to explain is the same as their Secondary Dwelling Unit. In your planning summary you state that an exception is made in the RM zone, but it fails to mention that the exception is for small lots only. The description of the building location is a bit confusing also; as the regulations state that the new structure be within 35′ of rear property line which has nothing to do with the front setback as mentioned in the blog.  Finally, the last paragraph states that the process to approve an “Accessory Structure” takes 4 to 6 weeks, which is quite different than what you state in opening the blog.  Obviously, you meant to say it takes 4 to 6 weeks for a Secondary (accessory) Dwelling Unit approval.

– Art Clark, Architect, Oakland CA
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3 thoughts on “Accessory Structures vs. Accessory Dwellings in Oakland, CA”

  1. is there a minimum distance of separation that the accessory building must be from the main building? any feedback would be greatly appreciated! thank you kindly,

    1. Depending on the design and construction you can do pretty much anything you want. You can build detached, you can build and addition, or you can have a breezeway or storage space in between.

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