Critics Blast Accessory Housing Proposal, Other Zoning Amendment Would Shape Village Center Development

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning


CHATHAM Depending on your point of view, a proposed change to the town’s zoning bylaw would either create new housing opportunities for working families or open the town to an untamed avalanche of residential development.

The zoning amendment would allow property owners to build “accessory dwelling units” on their properties by right. It aims to replace a bylaw provision designed to encourage the development of affordable apartments incidental to single-family homes – a provision that didn’t succeed in creating a single new housing unit.

On Monday, selectmen held a lengthy discussion on the proposal, as well as a second bylaw amendment designed to shape development along Route 28 in the neighborhood centers in West Chatham, the Cornfield and Crowell Road. Selectmen voted to include placeholders for both articles on the annual town meeting warrant, though it is unclear if final revisions will be ready before May. Both articles will be the subject of a planning board public hearing on Feb. 27.

Planning board Chairman Peter Cocolis said the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bylaw has a single aim: to open the housing market to young people and others who earn too little to buy a home at market rate, but who earn too much to quality for affordable housing programs.

“It should create new housing stock in a range of financially available alternatives,” he said. Currently, people who earn more than about $70,000 annually but less than around $100,000 are virtually frozen out of the housing market, he said. “It’s a serious, if not critical problem” around the Cape, he noted. The loss of young people from the Cape manifests itself in many ways. “You can see it in our elementary schools,” where enrollment is declining, Cocolis said. Current zoning bylaws haven’t helped that situation, he noted.

“The towns on the Cape have been extremely successful limiting growth and protecting natural resources, and that’s good,” he said. “But it’s created some of the problems that we have now.”

Principal Planner Aly Sabatino said the bylaw would allow people to build a separate dwelling unit by right, complete with kitchen and bath, if it fits into the character of the neighborhood. The ADU can have no more than two bedrooms, and can be no greater than half the floor area size of the principal dwelling, with a 1,000 square foot maximum. Units can be attached to the primary dwelling, or stand-alone structures, and would be designed to appeal to older singles or couples, middle-aged “empty nesters,” younger singles or couples or single working parents, or people who travel often. To keep them from being used for lucrative short-term summer rentals, ADU’s would not be allowed to be rented for less than six months.

The draft bylaw indicates that there is no minimum buildable upland required and the planning board could issue special permits to allow relief from setback and lot coverage requirements. Special permits could also be used to authorize an unlimited number of additional ADU’s on a property beyond the single one allowed by right.

Calling it “perhaps the worst zoning proposal I’ve seen in my 25-years-plus of studying zoning,” resident Gloria Freeman said the amendment would essentially gut the town’s protective bylaw, potentially doubling the number of housing units in town.

“But not one of them has to be affordable,” she said, since the proposal does not stipulate that ADU’s be rented to people of certain income ranges.

Resident Elaine Gibbs said it’s hard to imagine that a property owner would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build an ADU, and then rent it cheaply. The proposed bylaw would remove protections that preserve the character of single-family neighborhoods, Gibbs said. Under the proposal, a single-family property could become “a cottage colony” of ADU’s rented at market rate.

Resident Norm Pacun said there is no way for the town to enforce how ADU’s are used. He called the bylaw “the most unwanted social experiment in Chatham’s history. It is a developer’s dream. It is a neighbor’s nightmare.”

“Frankly, we have to start somewhere if we’re going to build the stock of housing in this town that’s more affordable than not,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. While the proposal deserves careful scrutiny and may have unintended consequences, allowing the planning board to hold a public hearing on the bylaw will engender healthy discussion, he added. Even if the bylaw doesn’t come to pass, “I think the planning board is really leading here,” Dykens said.

Board member Shareen Davis agreed, saying the initiative focuses on the type of housing Chatham needs. It would benefit workforce housing or seniors who have down-sized but want to remain in town, she said. It would allow local kids to grow their own families here. “This is really an exceptional opportunity for that age group,” she said.

The second proposed bylaw amendment, an outgrowth of the Route 28 visioning project, would reduce front building setbacks, prohibiting parking in front of buildings and providing incentives for the re-use of historic buildings. It is written as an overlay district that applies to properties in the general business GB-3 district along Route 28 in West Chatham, near the Cornfield and near Crowell Road. Over time, the bylaw is designed to encourage “compact, pedestrian-friendly development.”

New buildings would be required to be set back from Route 28 a minimum of 10 feet and a maximum of 20, with parking to be hidden behind the buildings. Because existing uses would be “grandfathered,” any changes could be glacially slow.

If the overlay district is adopted, some properties that currently meet zoning requirements would be made nonconforming, including the Ocean State Job Lot and Chatham Village Market properties.

“That just conceptually troubles me,” Nicastro said.

Building toward a future vision means that some current buildings will need to be made nonconforming, Sabatino said. Unless their owners seek to make major changes, properties will be allowed to remain nonconforming indefinitely.

Without passing judgment on the merits of either bylaw amendment, selectmen voted to send them to the planning board, which will hold a public hearing on Feb. 27 at 6 p.m.