Plan Board Urged To Place Limits On Accessory Dwellings

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Municipal Planning and Zoning , Housing and homelessness , Zoning/land use , Affordable housing

CHATHAM – At two public forums last week, residents encouraged the planning board to move forward with a zoning amendment allowing accessory dwelling units in single-family homes, but recommended that limits be placed on the number of units allowed annually and suggested that the language of the bylaw be tightened to prevent abuse.

Support was not unanimous, however, with several residents warning that the bylaw could increase density and override existing zoning laws.

“I think this has the potential for permanently changing the character of Chatham,” said resident Elaine Gibbs.

With some tweaks, the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bylaw could help alleviate the town's housing crunch, others countered.

“This is not an experiment,” said resident Rick Leavitt. “Other communities have done it and not only survived, but provided a level of moderately priced housing, whether it's an apartment in an existing dwelling or accessory dwelling over a garage or stand-alone dwelling, and did not change the character, the integrity of the community.”

The draft ADU bylaw, which the planning board expects to submit to voters at the May annual town meeting, allows the creation of separate apartments in single-family homes or in separate buildings. Studies have shown that seniors want to age in place, and having the ability to lease a portion of their home could help that happen by converting existing rooms to provide rental income, Principal Planner Aly Sabatino said at the Nov. 27 and Dec. 1 forums. ADUs could also provide a place to live for young people or families who cannot afford the town's high housing prices. The draft bylaw includes no income restrictions, she noted; it is designed to increase the stock of “attainable” housing, not affordable housing.

The dwellings must be owner-occupied on a year-round basis and units can be no more than 40 percent of the main dwelling's floor area, with an 800-square-foot cap. Units must be leased on a year-round basis and can't be rented on a monthly, weekly or daily basis; leases must be filed annually with the town. If a single-family home is on a lot that conforms to existing zoning, an ADU is allowed by right under the current draft; if a lot is non-conforming, a special permit is required. A special permit is also required for an accessory unit that is in a building separate from the main dwelling, such as over a garage. The number of special permits would be capped at 10 annually, but the draft bylaw allows an unlimited number of “by-right” ADUs.

Both those who support the ADU bylaw and opponents agreed that the number of by-right ADUs should be limited, at least initially. Sabatino said based on a 2007 study, 1,650 of the town's 6,043 parcels are conforming, and the number of by-right ADUs would be further limited by the year-round owner-occupancy restrictions; more than half of the town's housing units are occupied seasonally, she noted.

Wayside Inn owner David Oppenheim suggested by-right ADUs be limited to 10 to 20 for the first few years. That number might be optimistic, said Florence Seldin, noting that an affordable accessory dwelling bylaw passed a decade ago had failed to produce a single unit.

“I would hope that this one would be more successful,” she said.

Language limiting ADUs to year-round owner-occupied dwellings needs to be clarified, said Norman Pacun, who called the existing draft “muddy and terribly unclear.” The timeframe that constitutes year-round occupancy needs to be specified, as does the lease period for an ADU. Gloria Freeman added that the bylaw should specifically prohibit subletting of ADUs.

Pacun said the draft bylaw is “deeply flawed” and will only create market-rate units, not “attainable” or “affordable” housing. But Oppenheim said there's a need for more housing of any type in town; many of his employees who make a “good living” and could afford market-rate units can't find them.

“There is a need for this. Everybody talks about attainable, affordable. We need supply in this town,” he said.

Planning board chairman Kathryn Halpern said the ADU bylaw is just one tool in addressing the town's housing needs. “It's not intended and it could never solve all the problems of those housing needs,” she said.

Freeman suggested the bylaw could “double the town's population” and was a “way to override our protective zoning bylaw, effectively eliminating single-family dwelling lots.” A flood of ADUs and the creation of separate dwelling units on lots could also lower property values, she said, recommending that ADUs be deed-restricted so that they cannot be separately sold. Others countered that creating an income-generating unit within a single-family home would likely raise its market value.

Allowing two separate dwelling units on one lot violates the foundation of the town's zoning, which is based on single-family homes on single lots, Pacun said. The draft bylaw is a “backdoor change to the basics of our present zoning bylaw.”

“People need to know that a single-family residential neighborhood could be changed into a series of lots each with two separate families, something which I believe is totally unstated and unexpected when you read the summary and hear the description” of the ADU proposal, he said.

Others said those fears were overblown. Planning Board member Robert Wirtshafter pointed out that the bylaw doesn't change current board of health regulations and would not allow any additional bedrooms than are currently allowed. “This is not a way to get an extra bedroom in your house,” he said.

Charleen Greenhalgh, a Chatham resident and the town planner in Harwich, said the draft was “in some ways more restrictive than it should be.” Like many young people, she lived in an accessory apartment when she first moved to the Cape. Leslie Richardson, a Chatham resident and economic development officer for the Cape Cod Commission, said her family has been summer residents for five generations, and having an accessory apartment in their home could mean the difference between holding on to it and having to sell it. “This actually gives us the opportunity to do what has been done on Cape Cod traditionally for hundreds of years,” she said.

Maegen Storey said she “strongly supports” the bylaw which will help some families and young people remain in town. Its restrictions will prevent abuse, she added. “Don't tell me it will double the population, especially when the ADU has to be adjacent or attached to a primary residence,” she said.

Affordable housing committee member Bruce Bean said studies have shown there just isn't enough housing in town to meet the demand. He added that he heard many of the same objections when the affordable accessory unit bylaw was debated. “What are we up to with that, zero units?” he commented.

“I don't believe this is going to create more than one or two [units] a year,” Bean said. “I would hope it would be 10 or 20, but even one or two a year is going to allow one or two families to maintain or work in Chatham.”

The comments from the forums will be reviewed by the planning board at its Dec. 11 meeting. Halpern said the board expects to review a new working draft incorporating those comments at its Jan. 8 meeting.

“You've got a good proposal,” Oppenheim told the planning board at Saturday's forum. “I think you should defend it” with some minor tweaks and put it before voters at the May annual town meeting. “The people who are against this, I think, are against it, period,” he said.

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