Should Accessory Dwelling Units Be Allowed By Right? Planning Board Wrestles With Question

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Housing and homelessness , Zoning/land use


CHATHAM – Whether accessory dwelling units should be allowed by right or only by special permit has become a central point of disagreement in discussions about a draft zoning bylaw amendment that would let homeowners add a second, separate unit within a single-family dwelling.

The planning board hopes to put the accessory dwelling units (ADU) before town meeting in May. It is designed to allow owner-occupants with extra rooms in their homes to create separate apartments for individuals or families which must be rented on a year-round basis.

The latest draft of the bylaw allows up to 10 ADUs by right annually as well as another 10 by special permit through the zoning board of appeals. Special permits would be required for ADUs on non-conforming properties or in accessory buildings.

Critics of the amendment say that requiring special permits for all ADUs would ensure that abutters are notified that a second dwelling unit was being proposed for a specific property. Otherwise, an ADU would be “hidden” and a neighbor would not know that there are “two separate families” living in a single-family home, said Norman Pacun.

Karolyn McClelland, a member of the town's affordable housing committee, said eliminating by-right ADUs is “a horrible idea.” Requiring a special permit would add to the cost of permitting an ADU and give abutters a say over activity that would have no exterior impact on a home. Property owners who rent their homes for the summer are not required to notify abutters, she said.

“Why is there a different standard for locals and seasonal folks?” she asked. “Is there something inherently wrong with locals?” She also suggested that second homeowners be allowed to create ADUs, which would increase the pool of potential ADUs, since there are nearly 4,000 seasonal homes in town compared to just 2,200 year-round dwellings.

Planning board member Peter Farber said requiring special permits for all ADUs could help the amendment pass, since allowing them by right is point of contention.

“I want to get this through,” Farber said.

Other towns allow ADUs by right, said Principal Planner Aly Sabatino, and building permits don't typically require any abutter notification. Planning board member Tom Geagan said other towns haven't had a lot of ADU permit requests, and allowing them by right could encourage more.

“I don't think we're going to open the floodgates,” he said. Planning board member Robert Dubis said the bylaw could always be amended later based on initial experience, he added.

“We're trying to make something that works. Let's see if it works first,” he said.

Concerns over the impact of ADUs are exaggerated, said McClellend. Even 20 new year-round ADUs would be a drop in the bucket compared to the influx of summer residents, she said. The argument that a “mythical person” will abuse the system by renting an ADU seasonally is outweighed by the need.

“This is a tiny, tiny step in the right direction,” she said. “It is absolutely the least that the town can do. It costs nothing. We're not asking to allocate funds, we're not fighting over a parcel of land that everybody wants to build housing on. This is something to empower local residents to help local families.”

Planning board members had several questions about a sunset clause and other aspects of the draft amendment that they asked Sabatino to clarify. The board will take up the ADU bylaw at its Jan. 22 meeting, when it is expected to vote on the amendment.