To help ease housing crunch, Town Meeting approves accessory dwelling units

In an effort to create more affordable housing in Marblehead, Town Meeting voted 500-130 to approve a bylaw change allowing ADUs (accessory dwelling units).

ADUs are small living quarters that sit on the same property as single-family homes and are often called “in-law apartments.” They can be within an existing home, attached or detached. 

Town Planner Becky Curran and Planning Board Chair Robert Schaeffner answer questions about ADUs. CURRENT PHOTO / LEIGH BLANDER

“Why should we allow these ADUs?” asked Planning Board Chair Robert Schaeffner while presenting the plan. “Marblehead is aging, more housing options are needed. ADUs can help produce naturally-occurring affordable housing. It’s a terrific option for people with lower incomes.”

Housing advocates had pushed for rent restrictions on ADUs to keep them more affordable, but the Planning Board decided not to implement those. Because ADUs are smaller, they will likely be priced more affordably, supporters say.

Speaking in favor of ADUs, resident and senior citizen Jay Michaud described the home he and his wife have lived in for decades.

“We have eight bedrooms and we raised eight children. They’ve all grown up. The house now has seven empty bedrooms and an attic full of memories. The last thing I would like to do is leave that home. We may not have to put an ADU on our property, but it’s a valid option, a good option.”

Michaud is not alone. According to the 2020 Marblehead Housing Production Plan, the number of Marblehead households led by someone 55 and older increased by 21% in seven years, from 6,597 households in 2010 to 7,978 in 2017. 

The Housing Production Plan noted that the graying of Marblehead compels “expansion and diversification of its housing stock” and listed ADUs as a way to “create naturally-occurring affordable housing.”

In the 37 Massachusetts communities that allow ADUs, an average of 2.5 are approved each year, according to Shaeffner.

The ABCs of ADUs

Schaeffner laid out what he called “highlights” of Marblehead’s ADU plan. They include:

  • One ADU is permitted per property.
  • An owner must occupy either the primary residence or the ADU.
  • ADUs can not be separated from the primary home or sold separately.
  • Short-term rentals less than 90 days are not permitted.
  • ADUs are limited to 1,000 square feet.
  • A special permit process with the Planning Board is required for ADUs.

A few residents asked questions about their rights if a neighbor builds an ADU that is too close to their property or unsightly.

“We have a number of safeguards in place,” Schaeffner answered. “It’s a special permit process that allows abuttors to be present. We’re trying to recognize that the times are changing. Housing needs are extraordinary. But we are incredibly sensitive to the character of the town.”

Resident Mark Liebman asked who will enforce the rules if a homeowner violates the short-term rental ban.

“If there are any violations, the building commissioner would enforce [the rules],” said Town Planner Becky Cutting.

See the results of all Town Meeting votes in the Current’s Town Meeting Guide. Town Meeting reconvenes Wednesday at 7 p.m. for a third night.

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Leigh Blander is an experienced TV, radio and print journalist who has written hundreds of stories for local newspapers, including the Marblehead Reporter. She also works as a PR specialist.

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