Accessory Apartments Bylaw Under Scrutiny As Housing Tool

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning , Housing and homelessness

Town Planner Aly Sabatino flips through the town's accessory apartment bylaw.  WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH — Affordable and workforce housing has become a major focus of the board of selectmen and the planning board as the town considers establishing a housing trust and hiring a part-time housing coordinator.

More than a month ago, selectmen raised the issue of tweaking the town's accessory apartment bylaw to make it easier for homeowners to provide a second housing unit on their property. One concern centered around requiring a special permit and a hearing to obtain the permit. The planning board has taken the position that the hearing process lets the public comment on the compatibility of units with the neighborhood.

Town Planner Aly Sabatino said the planning board has been looking at the accessory apartment bylaw and is still examining potential revisions at the direction of the board of selectmen. But the board sees the need to bring more awareness to the existence of the bylaw to try to provide additional housing units, she said.

The intent of the bylaw is to increase the number of small dwelling units available for rent in town; to increase the range of choice of housing accommodations; encourage greater diversity of population with particular attention to young adults and seniors citizens; and encourage a more economic and energy-efficient use of the town housing supply while maintaining the appearance and character of the town's single-family neighborhoods.

“I think it's really important this bylaw gets some attention,” Sabatino said. The planning board feels it provides good options for parents who are getting older and need a place to live, and is also good for a young family who might not be able to afford a house.

“Housing needs are very complicated and it takes a multilayer approach to address, and accessory apartments are one of those approaches,” she said. “The planning board wants to put it out there we have these options.”

The accessory apartment bylaw is not new, though it was amended in 2013. Sabatino said the bylaw provides the opportunity for property owners to develop a rental apartment, attached or detached, on their property. The accessory provision is a town-wide bylaw, though it has lot size qualifications in several different zoning districts.

Sabatino said the lot size requirements are 15,000 square feet in the Residential High Density, Commercial Village, Commercial Highway-One and Multifamily Residential Low Density districts; in the Residential Low Density, Residential Medium Density and the Residential Rural districts it requires 20,000 square feet; and in the Water Resource Overlay District it requires 40,000 square feet. In the Six Ponds District it requires 100,000 square feet because of the District of Critical Environmental Concern designation.

She said the bylaw allows an apartment to have a maximum of 900 square feet, two bedrooms and a kitchen. Most have one-bedroom, she added. There is a requirement that one of the units on the property be occupied by the homeowner.

“The planning board usually looks favorably upon any application that meets the code, “ Sabatino said.

The apartment can be rented and does not require that the occupant be a relative. There is also no affordable housing price range; it's all about having different types of affordability for housing in the community, she said. This can be considered a “little A” affordable rental based on price, but unless a homeowner applies an affordable deed restriction, it cannot be counted as part of the town's affordable housing stock.

There is a lot of interest in pushing the accessory apartment concept regionally, Sabatino said, citing a model bylaw that has been crafted by the Cape Cod Commission as a tool to drive expansion of the housing stock on Cape Cod.

The planning board received the message that selectmen want to see a less restrictive bylaw, and Sabatino said she will do more research based on those comments before making recommendations for changes.