Chatham Selectmen Support Accessory Dwelling Unit Bylaw

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Housing and homelessness

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

CHATHAM Calling it a new approach to create housing for year-round residents, selectmen this week threw their support behind a zoning bylaw amendment that allows the creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The board voted unanimously to recommend approval of the amendment, which will be put before voters at the May 13 annual town meeting.

The bylaw is designed to allow no more than 20 property owners per year to create an ADU in their primary, year-round residence, and to rent that unit at market rate to another year-round resident. As many as 10 of those units could be created without obtaining any special permission from the town; in cases where the ADU is proposed for a separate structure, or is in a preexisting nonconforming structure, or doesn’t meet dimensional requirements, the unit would require a special permit from the appeals board.

Board members applauded the planning board and town staff for the proposed bylaw, and for the transparent, inclusive process used to craft it. Selectman Shareen Davis said the measure is part of a “groundswell” of initiatives in Cape towns designed to increase the housing stock for year-round residents.

“I don’t think any bylaw can be perfect or ideal,” Davis said. Some have criticized the bylaw for allowing the property owner to rent to anyone, not just those requiring affordable housing. “I think that’s a wonderful thing,” she said. Housing is needed by young working families who make too much money to qualify for affordable housing programs, and by elders and their caregivers, Davis said.

Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro asked why the proposal did not include income qualifications or other limitations designed to ensure that new ADUs go to the intended market. Planning board Chairman Kathryn Halpern said the goal was to create a bylaw that was not overly restrictive, so that property owners take advantage of it. The affordable accessory apartment bylaw currently on the books has failed to generate any new units. Because of limitations on the size of the ADU – 900 square feet and no more than two bedrooms – and the fact that it is typically within another person’s home, market factors will create a natural cap on rental rates, Halpern said.

Critics of the bylaw say it will be difficult to enforce, won’t necessarily create affordable housing, and could be abused. Resident Elaine Gibbs said it would be possible for a seasonal resident to buy a home containing a properly permitted ADU, and then convert that unit to a summer rental or guest house. Nicastro asked for a legal opinion on the issues Gibbs raised.

“Overall, I think that Ms. Gibbs’ concerns are misplaced,” Town Counsel Patrick Costello wrote in a March 7 email. “I do believe that the ADU bylaw, as drafted, achieves its intended objectives,” he added. Still, he acknowledged that, should a property with an ADU be sold to a person who cannot legally claim to be a year-round resident, the ADU would become unlawful. “However, that only prevents it from begin an ADU and does not prevent it from becoming a permitted short-term rental or guest house under other bylaw provisions,” Costello wrote. If the town identifies an ADU as unlawful, it could require that it be removed.

“Typically, that does require the removal or disconnection of the stove,” counsel wrote. “It will, admittedly, be somewhat difficult for the town to enforce, but the ability to enforce is present.”

“I may be a skeptic,” but it would be possible for a buyer to intentionally abuse the bylaw, Gibbs told selectmen Monday.

Halpern refuted that assertion, saying an ADU which is declared unlawful cannot automatically revert to a guest house or a high-end seasonal rental.

“It’s either an ADU or it’s nothing. It doesn’t become a guest house if there’s a new owner,” she said. Guest houses, for instances, must have a certain amount of buildable upland, which is not required for separate ADU structures, Halpern said.

While the planning board didn’t support the idea, members of the town’s economic development committee opined that summer homes should also be eligible for ADUs.

“One of their recommendations was to open up the ability to build an ADU on the private property to summer residents, to owners who are not year-round residents in Chatham,” she said. “That request was brought up from many, many public speakers” who said it would result in the creation of more housing units, “because the need is so great,” Halpern said. But the current draft bylaw does not allow this, she said.

South Chatham resident Karolyn McClelland criticized the “hysteria” about the ADU bylaw and said many of the problems critics identify with the proposal – like potential parking or traffic problems and a lack of notification for abutters – already exist when a property owner rents their home for the summer.

“There’s no regulation at all. We’re trying to make housing for year-round local people, and all of a sudden we have to adhere to all these restrictions” that do not apply to summer rentals, she said. Spurred by a recent letter to the editor, many locals have voiced concern that they are losing their seat at the table when it comes to policy decisions. Seasonal residents aren’t the problem, McClelland noted. “We’re losing our seat because we’re not paying attention and we’re not participating in the political process.”

Nicastro agreed that the bylaw is imperfect, but if it is adopted by voters and there are problems, it could be adjusted or repealed. Chatham is now suffering from dwindling numbers of young residents, coupled with many empty neighborhoods, he noted.

“I think we need to try something, even in a modest way, to try and stem that tide,” he said.

As a zoning bylaw amendment, the article is assured a place on the annual town meeting warrant by vote of the planning board, but selectmen voted unanimously to recommend passage of the article. It will require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

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