When Is a Dorm Not A Dorm?

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Chatham Bars Inn , Municipal Planning and Zoning , Zoning/land use

The former Chatham Bars Inn chauffeur's quarters on Chatham Bars Avenue. The zoning board of appeals last week declined a request by neighbors to stop work being done to convert the structure into a single-family home. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Neighbors Protest Use Of Former CBI Chauffer's Quarters

CHATHAM – Whether a building housing a group of unrelated people should be classified as a dormitory or a single-family home lies at the core of a complaint filed by neighbors of 20 Chatham Bars Ave.

Last week, however, members of the zoning board of appeals turned aside the complaint, even though some had the very same concerns expressed by the neighbors.

Aaron and Courtney Polhemus and Evan and Marisa Wechsler, who live on Nameless Lane, just to the east of the former Chatham Bars Inn chauffeur's quarters, asked Building Commissioner Jay Briggs to stop work on a kitchen in the structure. Briggs refused; the building is in a residential district, he said, and a kitchen is necessary to convert the former dorm into a single-family dwelling, which is the planned use of the structure, according to the permit.

Zoning board members upheld Briggs by a 4-1 vote, but several said the arrangement outlined for the use of the building by Chatham Bars Inn attorney Andrew Singer seemed to fit the zoning bylaw's definition of a dormitory.

“I'm not comfortable going forward today without making a stand that it's a dormitory,” said Robert Hessler, who cast the only vote to overturn Briggs' ruling. A dormitory is prohibited in a residential district.

Used for decades by Chatham Bars Inn to house staff, the 5,800-square-foot building has been vacant for years and lost its previous zoning protection as a dorm. The current inn owners purchased it for $2 million in 2015, along with 45 Chatham Bars Ave. across the street, and took out the building permit earlier this year to remove walls between two of the 15 bedrooms to create a kitchen. Briggs said the permit declared that its intended use was as a single-family home.

Singer said the inn plans to renovate the structure as a single-family dwelling to house employees who will live as a single “housekeeping unit” under one lease.

“We don't discriminate against multiple people living as a housekeeping unit whether they be married, not married, co-habitating, however they are, if they're doing it as a single housekeeping unit,” he said.

The neighbors' attorney, Michael Ford, said emails from CBI indicated six people between the ages of 18 and 24 from the Riverview School's postgraduate Grow program will be living in the structure from late June to Labor Day while working at the inn. There will also be an onsite supervisor who will occasionally spend the night.

“It escapes me how this cannot be a dormitory by simply asserting that the six individuals will be living together as one family unit,” he said. The proposal “fits classically within the definition of a dormitory,” which is prohibited in residential districts, he added.

The neighbors have been feuding with CBI for more than a year over activity at 45 Chatham Bars Ave.; use of that building, also considered abandoned, is currently the subject of a lawsuit between the town and the inn. Polhemus said neighbors made an effort to communicate with the inn's management about the use of 20 Chatham Bars Ave. and were initially told they'd be advised about the plans, and were surprised when construction began on the kitchen.

“Throughout this whole process it's been very difficult for us as neighbors dealing with Chatham Bars Inn,” he said. “We're very concerned about having essentially a dormitory reappear under the veil of a single-family home.”

Because a kitchen is allowed in a single-family home, Briggs said he had no grounds to revoke the building permit. Ford said the neighbors didn't want the permit revoked, but want the work to stop until Briggs is satisfied the ultimate use is allowed in the zoning district. Briggs said he was only informed of the inn's intention to house employees that week and he did not have time to vet the concept, nor did CBI file any further than plans other than an amendment to the building permit to knock down a wall to create a living room.

Singer said it was “a little ironic” that the neighbors are challenging the use of the building as a single-family home, which is an allowed use on the lot. “It somewhat begs the question for me what exactly will ever be acceptable to the neighborhood,” he said. He added that while there was a “productive” dialog with neighbors about the property across the street, the inn was not aware of concerns over 20 Chatham Bars Ave.

The town doesn't get involved in determining who lives in a single-family home, Singer said, adding that 20 Chatham Bars Ave. does not have an unusually large number of bedrooms for Chatham; there are 75 homes in town with between six and 10 bedrooms, he said.

“Just because it's used by Chatham Bars Inn employees doesn't make it a dorm,” Singer said.

“To me it sounds like a dormitory,” said ZBA member Donald Freeman. However, the use of the building wasn't the issue before the board, and he saw no grounds to revoke the permit.

Ford argued timing was critical; if neighbors need to appeal a decision on the use, it probably won't be heard until August, when the season is nearly over.

But zoning board members could found no reason to overturn Briggs' decision. Once Briggs determines the final use of the property, it will be up to neighbors whether or not to challenge his decision.