Marblehead Planning Board puts ADU proposal in voters’ court

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Marblehead Town Meeting will now decide the fate of a zoning proposal that proponents say could help some seniors age in place, create affordable housing opportunities and add to the local housing stock.

Marblehead Planning Board Chair Robert Schaeffner presides over a recent public meeting about accessory dwelling units. CURRENT / WILLIAM J. DOWD

Planning Board members have been working on the zoning proposal for months, aiming to regulate the construction and use of accessory dwelling units in Marblehead. ADUs are small living quarters that sit on the same property as single-family homes and are often called “in-law apartments.”

Planning Board members have reached agreement on nearly everything contained in the zoning proposal, including the following provisions:

  • restricting single-family homes to a one ADU per property;
  • requiring the owner of the single-family to occupy either the ADU or the primary residence;
  • providing one parking space for each ADU;
  • prohibiting the units from being separated and sold; and
  • banning short-term rentals.

Yet, at the Planning Board’s Jan. 17 public meeting, there was a lack of consensus on whether to incorporate a rent-restriction provision in the Town Meeting proposal.

As it stands, the proposal would cap the monthly rent of ADUs built for affordable housing at no more than 70 percent of the fair market rent in Marblehead, based on the number of bedrooms, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is currently $1,986 for a one-bedroom and $2,399 for a two-bedroom.

“The only thing that I’ve maintained is if we don’t have restrictions, there is no way we are going to create affordable housing,” said Planning Board member Barton Hyte. “It’s just not going to happen. I’m telling you, it’s impossible.”

Member Andrew Christensen joined Hyte in supporting some rent restrictions, while Edward O. Nilsson, Robert Schaeffner and Rossanna Ferrante took the opposite viewpoint. Nilsson did make a motion to include a provision allowing homeowners to build ADUs by right and for affordable housing. But the motion was not seconded.

Some board members argued that a rent restriction could discourage homeowners from building ADUs because the return on their investment would be delayed.

Ferrante stressed to her fellow board members that the zoning bylaw they will present to the Town Meeting should not be too restrictive.

“My opinion is that it’s getting too restrictive,” Ferrante said. “I’ve [also] said it is not for me to decide; it’s a Town Meeting vote that decides.”

An infographic details the various iterations of accessory dwelling units. COURTESY PHOTO

The Planning Board indeed voted to leave the rent restriction in place and let Town Meeting decide its fate, as Marblehead Town Planner Becky Cutting confirmed that Town Meeting could amend the zoning proposal.

Many communities, like Salem and Swampscott, have framed their ADU policies as a way to mitigate the regional housing crisis.
The 2020 Marblehead Housing Production Plan noted the town’s demographic changes “compel expansion and diversification of its housing stock.” The plan listed ADUs as a way to “create naturally occurring affordable housing.”

The data informing that recommendation included that the number of Marblehead households led by someone 55 or older had increased by 21 percent in seven years, from 6,597 households in 2010 to 7,978 households in 2017, while the number of residents between the ages of 25 to 44 had shrunk by 63 percent.

Kurt James, a Marblehead Fair Housing Committee member and former Marblehead Housing Authority commissioner, has said that producing ADUs as affordable housing may require not just putting a bylaw in place but adding incentives.

James noted that approving ADUs would open the door to collaboration and leveraging resources.

“The Fair Housing Committee and the Affordable Housing Trust could all work together to identify resources to support the rent restriction,” he said. “In the slightly longer term, [we] work with the Planning Board and the assessor’s office to create a home rule petition to create a real estate tax exemption for the value of the new unit as an added incentive and consideration of the affordable housing restriction.”

Jay Michaud and his wife, Susan, live in Florida for the winter and are interested in downsizing from their large home when they are in Marblehead. Michaud said converting a garage on their property would permit them to relocate into smaller living quarters and age in place.

“There are so many of us that want to stay in our town,” he said.

He added that an ADU would permit him and Susan to downsize and not “have to live in a big house with all the expenses that go along with it.”

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