An accessory dwelling unit. (Photo by 30X40 Design Workshop/YouTube)

Property owners in Contra Costa County who have constructed accessory dwellings, or in-law units, without the proper permits will soon have an opportunity to legalize those homes with some of the fees and fines waived, under a new incentive program.

“Our department has seen a substantial increase in the number of permit applications for ADUs in recent years following statewide legislation that streamlined the permitting process,” said Jason Crapo with the county Department of Conservation and Development. “However,” Crapo said, “We believe there are many more existing, unpermitted ADUs out there and we would like owners of these units to obtain permits to ensure they meet safety standards for occupancy.”

To encourage that, the county is going to waive late filing fees and building permit penalties for those who apply in the next two years, by July 1, 2021.

The process would involve an initial meeting with county staff to review the existing conditions in the home, after which officials would provide the property owner with guidance on what steps would be required to bring the unit into compliance.

County officials say that the state building code represents the minimum safety requirements in construction, but in some cases it allows for “alternative means.”

“The essence of this program is to try to allow alternative ways to meet the building code requirements … it gives the building director the ability to exercise some discretion,” Supervisor John Gioia said at a recent board meeting, asking Crapo to explain what that discretion would mean for property owners.

“When we have an applicant that has an unpermitted unit, we work with them to make improvements that are necessary so that unit achieves a level of safety that’s equivalent to what the code requires, and we try to do that in a way that minimizes the amount of alterations and construction they have to do to that existing unit, acknowledging the inconvenience and cost to the property owner,” Crapo said.

While some fees and penalties will be waived by the county, Crapo said the process could still involve costs associated with utility fees or other agencies.

“I don’t want to put the impression out there that it’s going to be inexpensive,” Supervisor Candace Andersen said.

Property owners who choose to withdraw from the program after meeting with county staff would face no penalty.

The program has not yet been established, but the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted this month to greenlight it. Property owners interested in participating can contact the Department of Conservation and Development at 925-674-7200.