By Patrick Blais
© The Stoneham Independent
STONEHAM, MA - The town's Planning Board wants to impose both stricter approval standards and more vigorous oversight controls around Stoneham's accessory or in-law apartment regulations.
During a meeting on Tuesday night in Town Hall, the Board of Selectmen considered a proposed Annual Town Meeting initiative in which the town's zoning code would be amended to better clarify the criteria under which homeowner's will be allowed to obtain a special permit for an accessory apartment.
Among other changes, the new zoning language, to replace the existing bylaw in its entirety, would:
• Cap the number of accessory dwellings at 10 percent of Stoneham's total number of single-family homes;
• Further clarify that petitioner must be creating the living spaces for immediate family members (parents, children, siblings, and grandparents);
• Require the homeowner to continue using the home as a primary residence;
• Mandate an annual certification process, in which special permit holders certify under the pains of perjury that they meet the criteria listed in their original application;
• and forbids such uses on non-conforming lots with less than 10,000 square feet of space;
Though the annual spring assembly will not be held until May, the elected officials are asking the Board of Selectmen to sponsor the proposed article. By doing so, the Planning Board will not have to collect signatures from registered voters to formally attach the measure to the Town Meeting agenda.
Ultimately, the selectmen took no formal vote on whether to designate the proposal for inclusion on the warrant, but board members generally supported the concept, as long as the new standards don't make it too difficult for local residents to obtain a permit.
"I like some of the goals behind [this zoning proposal], but we have an aging population and we're talking all the time about how to manage it," said Selectman Anthony Wilson. "I want to be careful not to harm the people who need it the most."
"I think your intentions with this are very good…I just want to make sure it's fully baked and there are safeguards in place to protect neighborhoods. My confidence needs to be higher that [the new zoning regulations will be enforced]," later commented Selectman Caroline Colarusso, who wants assurances the changes are sufficient curb system abuses and yank special permits from ineligible parties.
The Town of Stoneham adopted an accessory apartment bylaw, in which the Planning Board may sanction such uses within single-family homes by special permit, a number of years ago.
Also popularly referred to as in-law apartments, accessory dwellings in Stoneham were first eyed as a way to enable aging town residents to move-in with younger family members, but still enjoy some resemblance of an independent living arrangement.
Distinguishable from multi-family structures, the apartments generally contain at the very least a second kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom that is separated from the main living space of the larger structure. The total size of the secondary units are capped at 750 square feet.
In some nearby communities, in-law apartments are being placed within secondary structures like carriage houses and barns on single-family properties, but based upon Stoneham's existing regulations, an accessory dwelling cannot be housed in any structure separate from the main house.
According to Dolan, he and his colleagues began considering the zoning code changes after noticing a surge of special permit applications coming before the board. In some of those instances, the town officials noted the proposed accessory dwellings were being jammed into undersized homes.
There has also been an uptick in complaints regarding previously-permitted projects, which neighbors have alleged are being used like multi-family rental properties.
"We're getting a lot of complaints from neighbors who are concerned about this. At some hearings, we have three or four accessory dwelling [petitions at a time] before us," Dolan explained.
"In talking with Town Counsel [Robert Galvin about how to address those issues], he opined our existing bylaw provides us with little or no discretion to deny a petition at all. We have about 5,400 single-family dwellings in town, so we could conceivably have 5,400 accessory dwellings [without any way to reject unreasonable requests]."
In recent years, as the baby-boomer population is entering its retirement years, local officials have seen a spike in applications being submitted for accessory apartments.
In another growing trend, largely seen by housing experts as a reaction to a resurgence in area real-estate prices, college graduates and young professionals are increasingly returning to their childhood homes to resume living with their parents.
Dolan estimates that around 60 such special permits have been pulled to date.