2013-10-10 / Front Page

Councilors OK in-law apartments for family

Zoning amendment will also allow caretakers to live in accessory unit
By Margo Sullivan

In-law apartments, for use by family members and caretakers, will be an option for Jamestown single-family homeowners, the Town Council decided Monday.

The decision was made following a public hearing to amend the zoning ordinance to allow accessory dwelling units. The decision on Oct. 7 came in response to proposed revisions to the comprehensive plan by the Planning Commission.

The decision reflected demand for multigenerational living in town, according to Town Planner Lisa Bryer. “People wanted to have separate units, including a kitchen, which is not permitted currently,” she said.

Typical reasons have included the desire to care for elderly parents at home and maintain separate living quarters for them, to keep the elderly in their own homes but provide a separate unit for a hired caretaker, or allow adult children to stay on the island by living at home, although in a separate unit.

However, up to now, existing zoning law has allowed accessory units only in “permitted two-family” houses, multifamily houses or as affordable housing units.

Jamestown currently has about 55 accessory dwelling units. They are a combination of units that meet the zoning requirement because they are part of a two-family or multifamily house. Also, because they are nonconforming grandfathered units that predate the zoning ordinance, Bryer said.

Seventeen accessory units are in duplexes, she said, but all the legal units are not being used. For example, five have been converted back into single-family homes.

Otherwise, in single-family houses, Jamestown has not allowed any in-law apartments until 2009. According to Bryer, that was when the zoning ordinance was amended to allow accessory dwelling units but only to expand the town’s stocks in affordable housing.

However, no one has added an affordable housing accessory unit, probably because the state requires a 30-year deed restriction along with other provisions, Bryer says.

The Planning Commission reviewed the zoning ordinance and decided there was a need to allow accessory dwelling units in addition to affordable housing units but only for the use of family members.

Family members are defined by state law as people related by blood, marriage or other legal connection.

Bryer says she believes most of the people who would live in the accessory units are already living in town and would not impact water consumption or build-out projections.

According to the language of the ordinance, one purpose of the amendment is to “preserve and protect the family in Jamestown by enabling multiple generations of family members to live together and care for one another while maintaining a degree of privacy and individual dignity through separate dwelling units.”

Also, restrictions in the ordinance are intended to preserve the residential neighborhoods and property values, she said. Specifically, the property must be occupied by the owner.

The vote was unanimous. No one spoke against the amendment, and several people spoke in favor. The council accepted one change in wording, however, as proposed by Bryer and Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to answer concerns of a homeowner.

The resident, David Reardon, asked why the ordinance stated the main dwelling and accessory unit must share utilities.

“We have an accessory structure on our property and it meets all zoning,” he said, “but we have separate utilities.”

Reardon said the reason was to comply with a town mandate.

Councilor Mary Meagher said homeowners with a dwelling unit in a building that’s not part of the main house are charged separately for water and sewer.

“Many have guest bedrooms over garages,” she said, and those property owners are required to pay a separate sewer and water bill for the garage apartment.

Bryer said homeowners would have to appear before the sewer commissioners if they were constructing a new accessory building. However, she was not sure if the building official could make an exception to cover existing separate structures as accessory family dwelling units.

“The building official has to interpret and apply the ordinance,” Ruggiero cautioned.

Reardon said he hoped the council would clarify the issue.

“We could always add a provision about existing units,” Bryer suggested.

Council President Kristine Trocki asked Ruggiero if the council should continue the hearing to allow time to research adding a new provision to the amendment.

“We could amend it tonight,” he replied. “[Bryer] and I could look at it.”

That solution would be preferable to continuing the hearing, Ruggiero said.

The amendment ultimately was altered to allow existing units with separate utilities to qualify as accessory units and was passed subject to some restrictions.

The restrictions deal with the town’s oversight on exterior changes to existing buildings, as well as other requirements, including parking, lot size, utilities and the unit’s design and minimum size. If there are no exterior changes, Bryer said, the approval could be handled administratively. Otherwise, the abutters have to be notified and the technical review committee will assess the application and decide if the homeowners need to appear before the Zoning Board of Review for a special-use permit.

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