Harwich ‘Accessory Dwelling Unit’ Bylaw Taking Shape

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning , Housing and homelessness


HARWICH The need for affordable year-round housing is nothing new. But town officials are hoping that a new approach – the creation of accessory dwelling units – could provide some relief.

Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh updated selectmen Monday on efforts to draft an ADU bylaw in time for voters to consider at the next annual town meeting. If enacted, the bylaw would allow accessory apartments within the envelope of an existing home without the need for special approval from the town, provided that they meet all the criteria required by the special permit process, like lot size requirements. Any accessory apartments in a separate structure would still require a special permit.

The planning board has not yet considered the first draft of the bylaw amendment, she said. “We’re still very early in that discussion and conversation.”

The bylaw would continue to limit accessory apartments to one per existing single-family home, with both held under the same ownership and only one available for rental. The accessory apartment must be no larger than half the size of the primary residence and not more than 900 square feet, and can have no more than two bedrooms. Depending on the zone, minimum lot sizes range from 15,000 to 40,000 square feet.

“Under the existing bylaw, with transfer of ownership, you have to go back to the planning board,” Greenhalgh said. She recommends removing that provision, allowing the accessory apartment to remain when the property is sold.

“What about accessory bedrooms?” Selectman Larry Ballantine asked. In many parts of East Harwich, lots are too small to allow accessory apartments, and yet, “if you look at it, we’re being sewered there.” The sewers should allow greater density, possibly allowing a homeowner to add a bedroom for an elderly family member, he said. Ballantine said he believes accessory bedrooms could be done in a way that do not violate growth controls and won’t jeopardize state low-interest loans for sewer construction.

“I’d push the planning board to be as flexible as we can be within those criteria,” he said.

“Unfortunately, that’s more of a board of health regulation than it would be a zoning regulation,” Greenhalgh said, since that board dictates the number of bedrooms on a property.

Planning board member Joe McParland predicted that accessory dwelling units will be in higher demand than they were in the past.

“Over the years, most of these have been down toward the water,” with property owners seeking to build apartments over a garage, he said. “But as the town becomes sewered, it’s going to spread out a lot more than we had been handling.”

Many homes in East Harwich were built years ago in so-called cluster subdivisions, which have lots of less than an acre, Selectman Don Howell said. Those residents who are in a water resource protection district wouldn’t be allowed to convert a portion of their home to an ADU even if the result had the same number of bedrooms as before, he said.

Town Administrator Christopher Clark said the planning board is a friendly group, but it can still be intimidating to the uninitiated.

“I think one of the core elements of this is to allow the individual homeowner that wants to do things really for family considerations or financial considerations to be able to go in and have a conversation with the building inspector and see what works, to have it be a little less intimidating,” he said. Under this proposal, people who don’t plan changes beyond their existing home’s footprint can avoid having to go before a regulatory board, Clark said.

“I think this has been crafted very well,” he added, since applicants who want to add a building or otherwise change the appearance of the property will still need a special permit to do so.

“I would just really encourage the planning board to have a little bit of the political courage to be willing to let some of that authority be delegated off to the building inspector,” Clark said.

The zoning bylaw amendment will make progress toward the board of selectmen’s goal of “trying to create housing for the youth of the community and also the seniors of the community that want to continue to live in their homes,” the town administrator added.

“We have an aging population,” Selectmen Chairman Julie Kavanagh said, and when it comes to being able to allow an accessory bedroom to care for an aging parent, “I think we can all agree that’s something we want to be able to provide to the community, because it’s a hardship as it is.”

Greenhalgh said the bylaw amendment will continue to be refined and debated, with the goal of finding an article that can win support from a super-majority of voters.

“It’s really going to take that push at town meeting. That two-thirds vote is often very difficult to obtain,” she said.

The bylaw amendment will be vetted by the planning board, town counsel and selectmen, “to get it as close to finished as we possibly can,” before formally referring it to the planning board for a public hearing, Greenhalgh said.