CHATHAM — Depending on one’s perspective, accessory dwelling units – or ADUs – are either a good first step toward addressing the housing shortage or a radical zoning change that won’t achieve the desired results. Either way, the draft bylaw amendment is now on its way to the planning board for a public hearing.
An outgrowth of a 2015 survey showing that local seniors are worried about housing options to allow them to age in place, the ADU proposal aims to allow homeowners to add apartments that could be rented to individuals or families on a year-round basis. The draft bylaw would allow such developments without the need for special review when the apartment can be built entirely within the primary dwelling, and as long as the lot conforms to the zoning bylaw. When it is proposed for a nonconforming lot, or when it is detached, it would require a special permit granted by the zoning board of appeals.
The bylaw would allow no more than 10 by-right ADU permits and 10 special permits per year. It also includes wording designed to ensure that new units are rented on a year-round basis with no subletting allowed. ADUs would also not be allowed on properties that have an existing guest house, and applicants would need to sign an affidavit showing that the property is their primary residence. Finally, the draft bylaw offers a five-year amnesty to allow preexisting accessory apartments to be brought into compliance.
Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro asked Planning Board Chairman Kathryn Halpern why they favored allowing some ADUs by right, without the need for a special permit. While special permits prompt the notification of abutters and allow a full vetting of issues, she said, the process “may be a discouragement to some people.” Presenting an application to a committee can be daunting, and can also involve the expense of an attorney or an architect, she noted. The goal of allowing some apartments by right is “to make it accessible for certain applicants,” Halpern said.
The draft bylaw balances the need for more housing opportunities with the protection of the town’s character and environment, Selectman Peter Cocolis argued. The need for housing for seniors and for year-round working families is irrefutable, and if the ADU bylaw is overly strict, “nothing’s going to happen,” he said.
Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he disagrees with those who believe the bylaw would unleash a surge of development.
“I’m not fearful of a torrent of ADUs coming on line,” he said.
From her perspective, Selectman Shareen Davis said she believes the draft bylaw doesn’t go far enough. Even if all 20 ADUs are developed under the bylaw in a year, it wouldn’t create enough housing for even one percent of the town’s population, she said. There is a great shortage of one- and two-bedroom homes in the region, she noted. “We’re not even talking about affordability.”
Resident Sarah Manion spoke out for the need for that kind of housing.
“I am a single 34-year-old, born and raised on cape Cod,” she said. Manion said she makes too much money to qualify for low-income housing but not enough to buy her own home. “I have moved five times in three-and-a-half years,” she said, and recently learned she’ll have to leave her apartment next month because the landlord is preparing for early-season summer renters. While ADUs will not solve the housing shortage, “It’s a start,” she said.
West Chatham resident Anne Van Vleck, who works with the Housing Assistance Corporation, noted that the town’s existing affordable ADU bylaw has been on the books for 15 years, and “has resulted in zero units” because it is too restrictive. A 20-unit cap is too small, she argued.
“Why are we capping it all? Why not invite people?” she said.
Resident Elaine Gibbs said the bylaw has a number of shortcomings, including a lack of restrictions on who can rent new ADUs. While applicants must testify that the home is their primary residence, they can rent to any year-round tenant, even if it’s a family from New Jersey looking for a second residence on the Cape, Gibbs said. “You have got to make sure that people have ties to Chatham, because that’s the point,” she said.
One of the authors of the old ADU bylaw, former Selectman Florence Seldin, said the problem is that it requires that applicants keep the apartment affordable in perpetuity, by deed restriction; it also required renters to be chosen by lottery. “This is different,” she said. Units created under this bylaw would not be income-restricted, and because most of the town’s residential lots are nonconforming, most applications would require a special permit, Seldin said. “It would amaze me if we get more than three of these” applications per year, Seldin said. But even a handful of new apartments would be worthwhile, she added.
The lack of an affordability requirement is one reason resident Norm Pacun said he opposes the draft bylaw.
“What is being built here is nothing more than market rate housing, period,” he said. Despite the fact that the initiative is branded as a way to increase housing diversity, key details are “lost in the smokescreen” of the need for housing, Pacun said. Without any subsidy to renters, the units would go to the highest bidder. “How is this solving anything?” he asked.
The planning board, which opted against putting an earlier draft of the bylaw before town meeting voters last year, will now hold a new public hearing on the bylaw on Feb. 26, with the goal of bringing a revised version before voters in May.