2013-03-14 / Front Page

Town considers accessory units

Council takes first look at planners’ ordinance draft
BY MARGO SULLIVAN

Jamestown may ease the rules about in-law apartments to help extended families afford to live on the island, the Town Council indicated after a preliminary discussion at its March 7 meeting.

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggieri asked the council to take a look at the issue and be up-to-date with the new ordinance that the Planning Commission has drafted.

“I asked the council just to have a dialogue before this goes further,” Ruggieri said.

He said he wanted the council to consider the in-law apartments as a policy, and went on to say this was the time to speak up if the councilors had any problems with the proposal.

Town Planner Lisa Bryer said the past council asked the planners to develop an ordinance about inlaw apartments but did not provide guidance.

Bryer said the commissioners dealt with some difficult issues. After studying similar measures in five other communities, the Planning Commission decided in-law apartments should be only for family, meaning people connected to a household “by blood or by law.”

Bryer said the commissioners used the state’s definitions, which are interpreted by the zoning officer. The officer would have discretion, she said, to decide who is eligible to live in the unit.

Ruggieri said a household can be three unrelated people and the in-law apartment could be used by people related to any one of the them.

Bryer said there were a lot of reasons why the decision was made to restrict the occupants to family. One motive was the belief that units could be a “winwin” for families in that situation, meaning households with adult children or elderly parents. She also mentioned ongoing concerns about water use and the potential for misusing the in-law apartments to rent out rooms to summer vacationers.

“That’s a fairly popular option in Jamestown because we don’t have a lot of hotels,” she said.

The commissioners used 1.9 as the average number of occupants who would live in an accessory unit, but, Bryer said, “We have to assume a certain percentage would take advantage and increase our build out and our water use. It’s a different animal if it’s not family.”

Family members are likely already living in the household or residing elsewhere on the island, she said, so the commissioners reasoned that the water is already being used.

Bryer presented a draft of the ordinance to the council.

Council President Kristine Trocki said she found some of the requirements confusing, including the lot size requirement. She asked Bryer to walk the council through the proposed ordinance.

Bryer said the commission decided homeowners on substandard lots could not qualify for an in-law apartment “by right.” They are still eligible, she said, but would have to apply for a special-use permit through the Zoning Board.

Meagher said the trip to the Zoning Board would be “daunting” for many and probably could be expensive.

Bryer estimated only about onethird of Jamestown’s 3,400 lots would satisfy the dimensional requirements for an in-law apartment. In the R-40 district – where the Jamestown Shores neighborhood is located – only 10 percent could meet the standard, she said.

“Only one-third?” Trocki asked.

Bryer said the size restrictions had been adopted to limit the impact on neighbors. The plan is to rely on the neighbors to report violations, she said.

Finally, the councilors questioned how the status of existing illegal garage apartments and multifamily dwellings would be resolved.

“We know there are garage apartments out there,” Meagher said.

At the suggestion of Ruggieri, the council has sent the proposal back to the Planning Commission to draft a provision to allow homeowners with existing illegal units to meet the requirements.

Planning Chairman Michael Swistak said the commissioners had felt uncomfortable about including any provision that would amount to amnesty for people who were renting out rooms.

Trocki indicated she did not favor amnesty for people who have illegally been renting rooms or garage apartments.

“I don’t want to turn my head to anything illegal,” she said.

But other councilors thought property owners should be granted a “period of time” to comply with the new ordinance.

Ruggieri said the commission could allow homeowners some time to legitimize their units. But because some will still not be able to meet the requirements, he also suggested setting a lower standard for preexisting apartments.

“I can try something and send it to planning,” he said.

According to Bryer, not all inlaw apartments are illegal because units predating the town’s zoning ordinance are grandfathered in. She estimated about five properties have legal accessory dwelling units, but about 50 other property owners are in violation.

The fine is $500 a day, according to Ruggieri. He suggested some of the existing illegal units already conform to the dimensional regulations – or could be made to conform – and eventually be legal.

“We should have a couple of different options for existing illegal units,” said Councilor Eugene Mihaly. He suggested two categories, one for units that could come into compliance and another for apartments that could not.

Ruggieri said the ordinance could be advertised in May.

Ultimately, the Town Council will decide whether to enact the new ordinance, but no ballot vote will be required, according to Town Administator Bruce Keiser.

“The next step is a public hearing,” Ruggieri said.

The Town Council indicated they expect to hold public hearings on the in-law apartments in June.

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