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Draft code amendment could allow garages to be built before a dwelling

With the creation of a short-term rental code, the accessory structure issue has been heavily debated over the last six months in Chelan County.

Should property owners be allowed to build a garage before building their house on a piece of land? Why does county code only allow detached garages to be constructed as a permitted use on parcels that are larger than 12,000 square feet?

Community Development is currently working to bring more clarity to the topic by forwarding a draft code amendment to the Chelan County Planning Commission that changes the code to allow permitted garages, an accessory structure, to be built before a primary dwelling while also removing some of the restrictions.

 “There’s been some confusion created in past public hearings where misinformation from well-intended citizens was stated as fact,” said Chris Young, interim director of Community Development. “For example, it was stated that Chelan County is the only local jurisdiction that doesn’t allow a garage to be built prior to the dwelling unit being built. The truth is, Chelan County is the only jurisdiction in our area currently allowing garages – under limited circumstances – to be built first.”

The Washington State Residential Code is clear in that it regulates only two uses: dwellings and their accessory structures. Accessory structures are anything other than the dwelling, which includes a garage. An accessory structure cannot contain habitable elements, such as bedrooms, or it is considered a dwelling unit and not a garage. The codes allow a dwelling unit to co-exist with the accessory structure (such as the dwelling unit located above the first floor garage), but it has to be permitted as such.

The Washington State Residential Code states that as long as a primary dwelling exists, then accessory structures – garages, pools, fences, sheds or any other accessory use – are allowed. The county has allowed private garages to be permitted as the primary use, using the Washington State Building Code as a Utility Occupancy for private residential garages; however, the building code then limits the size of these structures to 1,000 square feet.

“The permitting of accessory structures prior to the primary dwelling has led to several uncomfortable situations,” Young said. “Like the couple that came in, looking to build their dream home on a piece of property but couldn’t because a garage, permitted as the primary use, was illegally converted to a dwelling unit without permits, meaning the second dwelling could not be permitted. It leads to a lot of heartbreak.”

In 2020, 158 accessory structure permits were issued in Chelan County, of which 108 were for garages, according to a recent analysis of building permits by Community Development. Of those 108 permitted garages, 32 now are classified as illegal dwelling units or accessory dwelling units, with an additional 16 that may also become dwelling units when completed, the report shows.

That means 44 percent of the accessory structure permits in 2020 contain an unpermitted dwelling unit component, representing a loss of permit revenues of nearly $100,000.

“The loss of revenues is frustrating, but our top priority is ensuring that when someone goes to build a home, safety and health guidelines are followed,” Young said. “Accessory structures are not required to contain the level of safety requirements as an accessory dwelling unit, so a garage is never inspected to the level of a dwelling unit unless permitted as such.”

On Tuesday, Young presented the draft amendment to the county commissioners. He proposes:

  • Amend the zoning code by eliminating a confusing footnote that allows accessory structures to be constructed prior to the primary dwelling. The footnote appears to apply to all accessory structures (including garages) but the intent was only for docks and piers to be permitted without the dwelling existing.
  • Create a definition for a residential garage so that private residential garages are defined as a primary use and not an accessory structure.
  • Amend the zoning code to eliminate the current lot size requirement of greater than 12,000 square feet so that garages as a primary use can be built on any size lot.
  • Establish conditions within the definition to ensure that life, safety and health issues are protected.

If the draft amendment and changes are passed and adopted by commissioners, Chelan County government would be the only jurisdiction in the county that allows a garage to be constructed on a residential lot prior to the dwelling existing.

“It’s a unique situation, but one that will bring clarity to the public and give Community Development more opportunities to work with people,” Young said.

Last Updated: 02/09/2022 03:55 PM

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