WINCHESTER - ADU = Y-E-S!

Town Meeting supported Article 4, allowing for the creation of Accessory Dwelling Units on single family or duplex lots. These would be allowed by right assuming the owner met all of the following criteria:

• one per lot

• the owner must reside in either the primary dwelling unit or the accessory unit

• the dwelling unit must comply with the Table of Dimensional Requirements in Section 4.2 of the town’s zoning bylaw (otherwise, the owner would need to apply for relief with the town’s ZBA)

• any exterior changes must be in a style similar to the main dwelling

• any new exterior entrance for the ADU must appear secondary to the main entrance

• for an upper floor dwelling unit created within a primary dwelling unit, a secondary egress must either be created within the envelope of the structure or be constructed on the exterior to the rear or side of the primary dwelling unit

• the ADU must comply with all residential occupancy and building permit regulations

• one off-street parking space per ADU

• the town must certify the ADU annually or when there is a change of ownership to the main dwelling

• the town’s zoning enforcement officer, along with the advice of the Design Review Committee, will determine if the ADU complies with the above provisions dealing with exterior changes and entrances

Speaking on behalf of the article, Planning Board Chair Diab Jerius said it would help two underserved populations: the elderly and the disabled by allowing them to remain on the family property.

Select Board member Michael Bettencourt, also speaking on behalf of the article, said the town’s Housing Production Plan promotes by right ADUs for seniors and those with disabilities.

“This is not a Silver Bullet,” he stressed, “ but a small step in the right direction.”

He noted how the disabled, especially younger adults, struggle to have stable housing and this can lead to poor long-term outcomes. They wind up in group homes or care facilities that aren’t right for them.

Bettencourt pointed out how the town’s zoning encourages residents to build larger homes, thereby making ADUs necessary for those who seek a smaller (and more affordable) dwelling.

“ADUs won’t solve the problem,” the Select Board member said, “but they provide a minimally disruptive solution.”

He added how the working group chose to limit the bylaw to the most vulnerable populations. Many other communities with ADUs don’t offer the same limitations as Winchester; however, they force homeowners to obtain a special permit to build one whereas Winchester residents can build an ADU by right.

“This is a small but significant step,” Bettencourt opined.

Cathy Boyle, speaking on behalf of the disabled community, said 820 people in Winchester qualify as disabled under Massachusetts General Law. According to census data, Boyle said most leave the home by the age of 30. Many wind up in group homes and public housing.

Right now, 100 students in Winchester public schools are considered autistic. That means, without the ADU bylaw passing, those students could end up in places not suited to their needs instead of at home with their family.

Town Planner Brian Szkeley stressed to Town Meeting that the use, not the structure, was by right. He said, when some Town Meeting members questioned why the bylaw didn’t force residents to alert their neighbors or seek a special permit, residents could build this exact same structure right now under current zoning (they just couldn’t use it as a dwelling unit).

He added how the building department, engineering department and even perhaps the Conservation Commission would review all projects.

If the ADU is detached, the town planner said it must be in the rear yard at no greater than 30 percent of the rear yard and at a maximum of 1.5 stories tall. Even though a resident could build an ADU by right, Szkeley said it could still trigger a site plan review or special permit.

There’s also a minimum 30-day rental to address Airbnbs.

When the town moderator asked for recommendations, the Finance Committee didn’t offer one. Chair My Lihn Truong said FinCom didn’t vote due to “uncertain financial implications.” The Disability Access Commission recommended favorable action to support those with disabilities and seniors due to limited housing options.

The Council on Aging also unanimously supported the bylaw to make the town age-friendly, as they are tasked with promoting healthy aging and independence.

“Many leave because they can’t afford it or wind up in housing not suitable for them,” COA Chair Tom Howley said, adding how the ADU won’t necessarily reduce the “significant” shortage but it will help.

Even though the article ended up passing by a fairly significant margin, not everyone agreed with the Planning Board, Select Board, COA, DAC, etc. Former Planning Board member and current Town Meeting member Maureen Meister felt there were reasons for concern with the article.

She pointed to a “troublesome” approval process, suggesting a house could be built in someone’s backyard. She added how the units would be market rate, built by right, noting the Planning Board reportedly debated making ADUs possible through a special permit instead. She said a special permit would lead to what she called an “important negotiating process.”

“Will it work for future owners?” she asked, regarding potential sales of homes with ADUs either attached or detached.

Another Town Meeting member who offered reservations about the article, Ann Sera noted its “particular and unique use,” but suggested the town was “giving it away to anyone” by allowing ADUs by right.

She pointed to the lack of discretion and said a discretionary approach happens during the permitting process and not through a zoning enforcement officer.

“This should be up to a permitting board,” Sera proposed. “Once you make an apartment it can be rented out.”

She feared it would make Winchester too dense and no different than Arlington, Cambridge or Somerville.

Another Town Meeting member opposed to the bylaw, former Planning Board Chair and former Select Board member Jacqueline Welch expressed “deep empathy” for seniors and those with disabilities, pointing out how her own father is a disabled veteran and how as a chid she shared a room with her grandmother. Her concerns revolved around the wording.

She wondered why the bylaw listed the age restriction at 62 when seniors are generally considered older and why it didn’t expressly mention the need for a familial relationship.between those living in the primary unit and those living in the ADU.

She noted there was no limit to the number of people allowed. She also wanted to see more specific dimensional requirements, Lastly, she felt the term “similar in style” when describing how the ADU must match the primary unit was too vague and could be stricken by the attorney general.

When asked by Town Meeting member John Miller if an ADU can be taken down and what happens to someone living on a corner lot, Town Counsel Jay Talerman said an ADU must cease (or be altered) without an annual certification and Szkeley said someone with a corner lot actually has two rear yards (one for each street the home abuts). The zoning enforcement officer would make the determination as to which one to use.

With some members seemingly for the idea of an ADU but simply against allowing it by right, Jerius said the special permitting process “could be weaponized to stop (an ADU)” and cause families “high legal fees.” He acknowledged a structure the size of an ADU can be built right now with the only difference being how it’s used.

Szkeley added how a special permitting process allows for a denial. Jerius did admit the Planning Board debated making detached ADUs go through a special permitting process, but that motion failed with three against. He noted, however, if that amendment passed he would still support the article.

“Special permits create obstacles for people who can’t afford it,” the Planning Board chair remarked.

Not every member spoke out against the article. John Richard, who admitted he tends to vote no on a lot of articles, expressed his excitement in voting for Article 4.

“I’m happy to support an article to expand freedom,” he said, adding how people need to trust their neighbors and let them do what they want. “They’re smart and good people.”

In the end, 104 members voted for the article and 46 voted against it.

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