Plan Board Endorses Town Meeting Passage Of ADU Bylaw

By: Tim Wood

Chatham officials see a accessory dwelling unit bylaw as a way to help people afford to stay in their homes.

CHATHAM – After making some minor wording adjustments, the planning board last week endorsed a zoning bylaw that will allow the creation of accessory dwelling units – essentially apartments – within single-family homes.

The measure now goes to the board of selectmen for placement on the warrant for the May 13 annual town meeting.

Last Tuesday's public hearing on the accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bylaw amendment drew a mix of supporters and opponents. Those in favor of the measure said it would create much-needed housing and benefit both young families and seniors. Opponents said the bylaw lacked adequate controls and enforcement provisions and would change the character of the town.

“This is a backdoor change to the very basics of our present zoning bylaw, one which I believe the overwhelming majority of our citizens do not know or do not realize will occur,” said Norman Pacun.

“We're trying to create an opportunity for year-round local people. We can't be distracted by these other comments...they're just incendiary language to scare people into thinking if we have too many locals move into town it's going to ruin the local character,” said supporter Karolyn McClelland, a member of the town's affordable housing committee.

If approved by a two-thirds vote at town meeting, the ADU bylaw would allow the creation of apartments no larger than 900 square feet with up to two bedrooms within single-family homes or in detached structures such as a garage. A home must be the permanent residence of the owner in order to add an ADU. Units must be leased for at least 12 months and can't be rented on a weekly or monthly basis.

There are two categories of ADUs: those allowed by right, on properties that conform to existing zoning, and those requiring a special permit, which include properties that are nonconforming and those where ADUs are proposed in detached structures. Each category is limited to 10 permits annually, capping the total number of ADUs allowed each year at 20.

The purpose of the bylaw, as stated in the amendment, is to “broaden the range of housing opportunities for households of all incomes, ages and sizes in order to support a strong, stable and diverse year-round community, a viable healthy local workforce and to prevent the displacement of Chatham residents... Promote a more economic and energy efficient use of the town’s housing supply while maintaining the appearance and character of the town’s single family neighborhoods [and] encourage greater diversity of population with particular attention to young adult citizens and to allow for 'aging in place' for our senior citizens.”

That description is misleading, said Gloria Freeman, because it implies the bylaw will create housing for young people, senior citizens and working families. However, it lacks limits on rental rates or requirements that occupants be local residents and will simply add more market rate units to the housing stock, she said. It will create neither affordable or attainable housing, she said.

“It simply will not help those who need housing but can't pay market rate, and there is no preference given to people with Chatham connections,” she said. The bylaw has other flaws, she added, such as not requiring the notification of abutters to those who add ADUs by right. All ADUs should require a special permit, she said, which would require notification of abutters. The measure also lacks meaningful monitoring and enforcement, she said.

“As currently written there are so many fundamental flaws,” Freeman said.

The bylaw would essentially allow the conversion of single-family homes into two-family homes, which would “radically change the face of Chatham,” said Pacun. The measure has no occupancy limits, no limit on the number of vehicles allowed on a property, and could allow someone to lease an ADU for a year but only use it weekends or summers, he said. Without ways to enforce the bylaw's provisions, it will just increase the town's housing problems, added Elaine Gibbs.

“If we want to reverse the trend of becoming an ever-increasing absent owner community of seasonal rentals, I believe this bylaw is exactly what we shouldn't do,” she said.

Melissa Sanderson pointed out that there is no monitoring of seasonal rentals. “Why should we apply different standards to locals than we do to summer people?” she said. Ann Van Vleck said the proposal has widespread support in town and would add to the housing inventory.

“I implore you, please don't let perfection get in the way of progress,” she told the board. “Please resist the urge to make a perfect bylaw, which doesn't exist, based on fear-based objections that are implausible and based on what-if scenarios.”

Some people feel the proposed bylaw is too restrictive, said David Oppenheim. Fears about ADUs being abused are unfounded, he said. “This is not a huge money maker. It's an option for people,” he said. Although it's a small piece of the housing puzzle, it can help. He suggested the board revisit the measure after a year and fine tune it if necessary.

Beth Wade said her family received a special permit to build an in-law apartment in their home in 1982, where her parents lived until their death. “It was convenient, it was supportive, and a very cost efficient way for us all to live,” she said. An in-law apartment is similar to an ADU, except that the occupant must be a relative of the homeowner. She'd like to rent the apartment to a local young professional, but can't at this time.

“The ADU will open to us much needed housing options and opportunities, and the Wades on White Pond Road support this bylaw, and we hope it will be moved to town meeting in its most flexible form,” Wade said.

Brett Tolley, a member of the Chatham 365 task force, said he and his wife were able to find a house in town that they could afford, but spend two-thirds of their income on their mortgage and child care. “It's unclear how long we'll be able to afford homeownership,” he said, but the ADU could provide supplemental income. “It's not a silver bullet, but it would certainly help.”

McClelland said the bylaw should be broadened by removing the caps and allowing non-resident homeowners to add ADUs. As currently written, the bylaw limits ADUs to owners who live in their homes year-round. But Seth Taylor said that “defies all logic and flies in the face of the economic pressures that have created the incredible housing problem that we have in Chatham and on Cape Cod.”

After making several wording adjustments, including limiting ADU occupancy to no more than two people per bedroom and limiting units to no more than one per parcel, the board voted unanimously to endorse the amendment and forward it to selectmen. Members decided not to open ADUs up to homes owned by nonresidents, but agreed to revisit the measure after a year to determine if that or other elements should be changes.