John Sewell-Thurston expresses frustration while showing new trenches dug for pipelines to a granny flat on his property in City Heights, July 28, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

The San Diego City Attorney’s Office has told two city departments they should review hundreds of granny flat permits to ensure water and sewer fees have been properly waived under state law.

The office’s four-page opinion was issued Thursday, the same day inewsource reported the city was possibly overcharging fees on granny flats issued since 2017. Two state laws took effect since then that waived impact fees and utility fees for some of these projects. The goal was to increase affordable housing.

Over four weeks, inewsource asked city officials if these fees had been waived for any property owner, but no one would answer the question or provide documentation that San Diego was complying with the state laws.

Why this matters

How to fix San Diego’s shortage of affordable housing is a problem that has dogged city leaders for years. Granny flats are seen as one tool to help boost the housing stock.

The departments responsible for granny flat fees — Development Services and Public Utilities — sent an email to inewsource in response to the city attorney’s opinion saying they plan to review permits issued since the beginning of the year. That’s 280 permits.

But City Attorney Mara Elliott’s chief of staff, Gerry Braun, said the departments should be reviewing permits issued since 2017, which would include several hundred more.

The review will only look at whether utility fees were waived, because after inewsource published its story, city officials said they stopped charging impact fees on granny flats in 2018.

Have you built a granny flat in San Diego since 2017?

We want to hear from you, including how the process with the city worked. Email reporter Cody Dulaney at

San Diego resident John Sewell-Thurston believes he may have been wrongly charged utility fees for the granny flat he’s building in City Heights and has been pressuring city staff for answers since early June.

Because Sewell-Thurston plans to expand his detached garage by more than 150 square feet, his project would not qualify for utility fee waivers, according to Thursday’s opinion from the City Attorney’s Office.

“I don’t understand why this couldn’t have been explained to me on Day One,” he said.

The city should have been able to print out a policy or point to a law that quickly explained why he was correctly charged, Sewell-Thurston said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...