Riverside homeowners who since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have been pining for the opportunity to build a new structure or convert an existing one on their properties for use as a home office can now do so thanks to a change in the zoning code approved unanimously by village trustees on Feb. 2.

The code amendment was more than two years in the making, with the Riverside Planning and Zoning Commission and its village board liaison, Trustee Doug Pollock, along with input from other elected officials, refining language over the course of at least a dozen public hearings and meetings.

“The trickiness was getting it right and not creating a lot of non-conformities,” Pollock said. “We wanted to do the minimum necessary to allow people to make use of detached accessory buildings.”

Village trustees first kicked around the idea of allowing home office uses on the second stories of garages in the midst of the pandemic back in September 2020. While officials recognized working from home likely would be a permanent reality, they were not keen on allowing people to simply increase the heights of their garages to accommodate home offices.

Without a code amendment, however, detached home offices would not be allowed at all, at least legally.

“I’m very excited about this amendment, because it provides opportunities for residents to add value and utility to their properties,” Pollock said.

Assistant Village Manager Ashley Monroe, who heads up the Riverside’s Community Development Department, said that while there hasn’t been a groundswell of applications for such structures yet, the code rewrite “opens the door to more convenient use of a property.”

More convenient property use is something Pollock says he has been hearing about  since the start of the pandemic.

“Every time I talk to someone about this change, they were excited,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘I’ll be working from home at least part time for the rest of my career, and I don’t want to do it in the dining room.’”

While the most common detached home occupation spaces are likely to be constructed above a new garage due to lot coverage limits, the new code also allows accessory structures up to 800 square feet to be built for the sole purpose of accommodating a home occupation.

The code leaves open the possibility of converting an existing garage into one that could accommodate a second-floor home office use, but that could be more complicated than building new, since existing buildings would need to be brought up to code in all aspects.

“Some garages may be more difficult to convert,” Pollock said. “The cost of converting may be too much.”

The total square footage of all accessory buildings can’t exceed 12% of the total lot area, but the buildings now may be up to 20 feet tall in all zoning districts, although any accessory building more than 18 feet tall faces additional setback requirements. Side walls can be a maximum of 12 feet tall and no accessory structure can be taller than the principal building on a lot.

The old code allowed accessory structures to be a maximum of 16 feet tall in multifamily residential districts and up to 18 feet in single-family residential districts.

While new garages with home offices above might be taller than what is allowed now, Pollock said their designs are likely to be superior to ordinary garages.

“One of the things that struck me while walking around and looking at people’s garages was that the ones that have an attic, with dormers, are the more attractive garages,” Pollock said. “They’re more like mini-coach houses, so as a function of urban design, when people build those garages with dormers, it just looks better.”

Accessory buildings still are not allowed in street yards, but they are permitted in side yards on corner lots as long as they are no closer to the street than the principal structure. Accessory buildings may now be fully heated and air conditioned and may include plumbing facilities, except for showers and bathtubs, which are prohibited unless they are part of a pool house, which is now specifically defined in the code.

Crucially, accessory buildings are not allowed to be used as dwellings and can’t contain cooking facilities. The only exceptions to that prohibition are existing coach houses designated as local historic landmarks.