Marblehead residents weigh in on ADU proposal

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Marblehead Planning Board members picked up quite a few ideas for possible incorporation in a working zoning bylaw proposal that they are crafting for Town Meeting’s consideration in May.

The zoning bylaw would aim to regulate what’s called accessory dwelling units – both their use and construction in Marblehead. ADUs are small living quarters on the same property as single-family homes – and often referred to as “in-law apartments.”

“They can be created in a house, attached to a house, or detached from a house,” said the Planning Board’s chairman, Robert Schaeffner, on Tuesday. “All of them are intended to keep the feeling of a single-family residence always.”

Many communities, like Salem and Swampscott, have frame their ADU policies as one way to mitigate the Greater Boston housing crisis. ADUs can help families stay together, allow seniors to age in place, keep caregivers close, grow affordable housing opportunities among other benefits.

The 2020 Marblehead Housing Production Plan notes the town’s demographic changes “compel expansion and diversification of its housing stock.” To that end, it lists ADUs as a way to “create naturally occurring affordable housing.” 

“In Marblehead, the number of households led by someone 55 or older increased by 21 percent in seven years: from 6,597 households in 2010 to 7,978 households in 2017,” the plan reads. “The number of residents between the ages of 25 to 44 shrunk by 63 percent.”

Marblehead Town Planner Becky Cutting and the Planning Board have been working on the zoning proposal for months. On Tuesday night, they singled out what they described as the policy’s well-ironed-out areas: 

  • Restrict single-family homes to a single ADU per property
  • Either the ADU or the primary residence must be occupied by the single-family home’s owner
  • One parking space for each ADU must be provided
  • The units can not be separated and sold
  • Short-term rentals are prohibited

Several comments on Tuesday targeted areas that Schaeffner characterized as “things we don’t know.” They include:

  • Size limitation to two bedrooms or a maximum of 900 square feet, 1,000 square feet
  • How to ensure rules are followed: Affidavits, certifications and/or annual inspections
  • Limit rent to 60 percent or 70 percent of area rents as determined by HUD (greater affordability) or no restriction (more likely to be built)

Creating incentives

“I understand there are concerns about not wanting to hamstring homeowners by controlling rents,” said Marblehead resident Kurt James, a Marblehead Fair Housing Committee member. “But there are various incentives that you could offer owners to offset those limits.” 

James brought attention to a Salem property tax exemption for ADU landlords as well as a grant program.

“The Marblehead Affordable Housing Trust has funds,” said James, adding it receives roughly $25,000 in state funds that don’t always get spent. “We need to explore [whether] those resources are available for these units – it might be an interesting grant program that we could [establish].”

He also suggested Marblehead follow Salem’s lead and offer a property-tax abatement for ADUs rented out at affordable-housing thresholds. 

“There’s plenty of precedent for it,” he said. “It’s  something that’s very viable, and that would reduce homeowners’ expenses.” 

What about enforcement?

Marblehead resident Lena Robinson, in part, asked: what about enforcement and ensuring compliance?

“We’ve had in the past bylaws that have passed that have ended up being more recommendations than enforceable,” she said. “Who’s going to be the one leading this when somebody either fails to comply or doesn’t know how to comply.” 

Schaeffner thanked Robinson for her questions, adding the Planning Board hopes to strike a goldilocks middle. He cited a Pioneer Institute for Public Policy report as a wealth of helpful information as they develop the zoning proposal. 

“They do give some interesting examples of places where things are what I would consider overly restricted and difficult to enforce,” said Schaeffner. “We’re trying…to be realistic about what are the requirements that are most reasonable, and the ones that are that we can actually enforce.” 

The institute’s report notes 100 cities and towns around (but not including) Boston found that, among the 37 communities that allow ADUs, only 2.5 are built per year. A tabulation of ADUs closer to home revealed: “In the past three years, three were built in Swampscott, seven in Ipswich and 10 in Peabody.”

“It’s a little disappointing to see how few have actually been built in some of these other towns,” Marblehead resident and realtor Meg Andrews said. “I would just really encourage you to think of any incentives that you possibly can to really make sure these are affordable.”

Officials said the ADU proposal will have at least two more public hearings before Town Meeting.

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