Location of ADU
A two-story ADU is slated to replace the shed visible from Eric Rosenzweig’s backyard. Photo courtesy of the homeowner

Eric Rosenzweig won’t ever know if good fences really do make good neighbors. That’s because the law won’t let Eric build a 23-foot tall fence to protect his family’s privacy from the three “accessory dwelling units” that will soon loom large over his backyard.

Eric recently learned that a local investment firm purchased the property that abuts his home on Manchester Street, near 70th Street, in the College East area. That neighborhood is zoned for single-family homes, but our city’s ill-conceived ADU ordinance allows the investors to fill their property with three two-story ADUs.

Plans on file with the city confirm the absentee landlord will also convert the garage on the existing house to a living unit. Add it up, and you get an eight-unit apartment complex, courtesy of a perverse mash-up of state and local regulations most San Diegans thought were meant to simply make it easier for homeowners to build a “granny flat” and garage conversion.

Eric and his neighbors have all sorts of problems with that project, and a similar seven-unit complex on 69th Street. They’re upset that current regulations don’t require even a single off-street parking spot for multi-unit ADUs. They’re angry that the developers can clear-cut the backyards and cover them with concrete, despite the city’s pledge to plant thousands of new shade trees to fight global warming.

They don’t understand why these outside investors are exempt from paying the development fees that maintain our streets and sidewalks and fund the construction of libraries and parks. And they don’t know why the city won’t plan for the cumulative impact of these two multi-unit ADUs, which Eric calculates will increase density by 33% on the impacted blocks.

Worse, they fully expect there will be more projects of equal or even larger size and scope in their single-family neighborhood. And there is no requirement that these absentee landlords reserve even a single rental unit for very-low or low-income housing.

Eric and his neighbors asked the city to reign in these abuses by approving sensible revisions to the city’s ADU ordinance. But so far, they’re gotten no help from Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, who represents their district, or Mayor Todd Gloria, who controls the city’s planning and building bureaucracy.

Elo-Rivera and Gloria both declined to attend a recent, well-attended neighborhood meeting in Eric’s backyard, refused to send a representative in their place, and won’t investigate the issue.

Eric also hoped he could talk directly with the developers and designers about his concerns. Maybe they could reduce the size of the huge, 12-foot window that will loom over his backyard, make even minimal design changes so the buildings blend better with the neighborhood, save the big beautiful backyard shade tree, plant additional trees on the property’s perimeter, or at least just tell him when demolition and construction will start.

Plans for the ADU with the large window that will be visible over Eric Rosenzweig’s fence.

“That’s all I want, is a conversation,” Eric told me. “When I built my addition,  I talked to my neighbors. It’s courtesy, just common, neighborhood courtesy.”

But Housing Solutions LLC, which is listed as the project developer, didn’t respond to Eric’s registered letters, and the owner of Maxable Space, the project designer, offered only vague indications of possible future discussions, in response to Eric’s “multiple, multiple” phone calls.

So Eric realized he’d have to go it alone to protect his family’s privacy and property value. He learned that other homeowners confronting similarly insensitive, out-of-scale projects planted fast-growing hedges along the shared property line. In mid-December, Eric paid a landscape contractor $10,000 to plant 34 ficus nitida trees along his fence line.

Those trees grow two or three feet per year, so in five years he’ll hopefully have a hedge that will at least partially restore his privacy. That’s a long wait, and Eric can only hope his elected representatives more quickly approve sensible revisions to the city’s ill-conceived and destructive ADU ordinance.

Paul Krueger is a former senior producer at NBC7 San Diego and a resident of the Talmadge neighborhood.