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When a ‘granny pod’ lands next door

By A.M. Horowitz,

This summer, I visited my parents at the house where I grew up in Fairfax County. During my stay, it quickly became clear that the next-door neighbors were undertaking a major construction project. Noisy sounds of heavy machinery, of trees being knocked down and of earth being moved came from their yard. We wondered what they were doing. But we were amazed when a small house appeared on their property. We soon learned it was a MedCottage.

The property of the Page family, featured in The Post’s Nov. 26 front-page article “Pioneering the ‘granny pod,’ ” backs onto the side of my parents’ lot. The MedCottage sits close to the line that divides their two properties and, therefore, surprisingly close to the side of my parents’ house.

I am extremely sympathetic to the Pages, and I deeply respect the dedication and care they give to their mother. I also recognize that the MedCottage is an important potential option in elder care. But structures such as MedCottages put neighbors in a difficult position. On the one hand, they may be sympathetic to the challenge of caring for aging loved ones. On the other, the structures force them to compromise the aesthetic enjoyment of their property — and potentially their safety.

Under typical residential zoning ordinances, it would not be possible to erect a second free-standing dwelling on property containing a single-family home. But MedCottages are the exception, due to the Virginia General Assembly. In 2010, the assembly made it especially easy for these structures to be built, passing almost unanimously legislation that allows families to supersede local zoning laws and put up such dwellings with a doctor’s order. The law was passed before a prototype of the MedCottage had even been built.

In terms of zoning, the requirements for these “temporary family health-care structures” are similar to those for building a shed. In the area where the Pages and my parents live, this means the MedCottage must be at least eight feet from the back property line. But eight feet is not actually a great distance, and a MedCottage is not a shed. It is meant to be occupied day and night, and it has a kitchenette.

Zoning ordinances exist in part to protect safety. What concerns me most is the ease with which a fire could jump between the MedCottage, my parents’ home and the Pages’ house, which itself is only about six feet from the cottage.

As the aging population skyrockets, so too may the number of structures like the MedCottage. But in so doing, these buildings will become a community issue and an issue of public safety. The General Assembly should revisit whether these structures should be exempt from normal zoning ordinances. Most important, they should ensure that there is always ample space between dwellings so that all members of communities can remain both safe and happy into the future.

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