Are Accessory Dwelling Units Allowed in North Carolina?

Whether accessory dwelling units ("ADUs") are allowed depends on the local municipal ordinance and relevant regulations. For example, the City of Asheville, North Carolina allows ADUs. See Ordinance here. ADUs are commonly called "granny flats," "backyard cottages" or "in-law apartments." Examples include a small apartment above a garage, a small cottage near the main house/structure or a "side-by-side" unit attached to the main structure. See examples here from this Asheville Guide to ADUs.

ADUs are justified as allowable land use for many reasons. According to this fact page, Asheville allows ADUs for these reasons:

"ADUs provide practical housing options for the elderly, empty nesters, young students, and new families, and can provide additional rental income for homeowners. ADUs can help to provide needed housing and do not require the extra expense of purchasing land, can be developed by converting existing structures, and do not usually require the extension of city infrastructure for the additional housing units."

Those are the typical reasons why a city or local municipality would allow ADUs. Other justifications include increased municipal tax revenues based on rental taxes and increased property values and the increased ease of property upkeep by property owners with rental income. ADUs have become increasingly fashionable and acceptable in many communities as a response to housing shortages.

In general, the characteristics of an ADU are these:

  • Built and exist only in residential zoning districts
  • Must be residential
  • Must be intended for year-round residence
  • Can be a free-standing structure or be included in a larger structure on the property
  • If free-standing, must be built on a foundation -- that is, cannot be a mobile home or on wheels
  • If free-standing, must be smaller than the principal structure on the lot
  • If free-standing or in a separate structure, cannot be sold separately from the whole lot
  • Only one ADU allowed per lot
  • Must comply with other zoning and land use requirements -- like set back and yard requirements
  • Must have certain amenities as per the local ordinance (like a living room, bath facilities, kitchen, lockable separate door, etc.)
  • Must have standard utilities like water, sewer, electricity, etc.
  • Must have standard mechanicals like heat and plumbing pipes
  • Must comply with applicable safety, health, fire and building codes

In general, ADUs cannot be built without complying with local permitting requirements. In many North Carolina communities, ADUs can be built in historic districts. But, again, an ADU in a historic district must comply with the applicable local ordinances. These often require compliance with more restrictive regulations with respect to design and aesthetics. For example, in Asheville, an ADU in a historic district must meet all the other zoning and building requirements and must also obtain what is called a "Major Work Certificate of Appropriateness" from the relevant Historic Resources Commission. If the proposed design is not deemed "appropriate," a permit for the ADU will be denied.

What is the Process of Getting a Permit to Build an ADU?

The process of obtaining a permit is complicated no matter where one hopes to build. As with everything else, obtaining a permit will depend on the rules and procedures for the local municipality. But a generalized list of steps would include these:

First -- Retain licensed professionals for the project. You will need licensed contractors for the project including licensed professionals to prepare plans, blueprints, and site drawings for the proposed ADU. Likely, local licensed contractors are familiar with the permit rules and can provide initial guidance. It may be useful to retain the services of an experienced North Carolina land use attorney to help you with the legal requirements.

Second -- Meet with the city or local planning department for an initial review. It is probably useful to take your contractor along. No "decision" will be made, but the personnel at the planning department can identify problems with the proposal, can help with the application process and provide information on fees and timing.

Third -- File the official application for the permit and pay applicable fees.

Fourth -- Wait for review and feedback from the planning department. Revise and submit an amended application as and when needed.

Fifth -- Have your contractors begin work once the plans are approved and the permit issued.

What if My Neighbor Finds Out and Objects?

The local ordinance will determine what, if any rights, a neighboring landowner may have to challenge the issuance of a permit to build an ADU. For example, as described here, Raleigh used to have an ordinance that required property owners to petition their neighbors for permission to build an ADU. However, Raleigh recently changed the requirements. Now property owners can build ADUs as a "right."

Contact Experienced Mecklenburg County Land Use Attorneys Today

For more information, and to schedule a confidential consultation with experienced and dedicated zoning and land use attorneys in Charlotte, contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC. Use our “Contact” page or give us a call at 704-370-2828. We handle land use, zoning and condemnation legal matters in Mecklenburg County and elsewhere in North Carolina. We have offices in Charlotte, Lake Norman, and Union County.