STONINGTON — A newly-approved zoning amendment will broaden the types of accessory dwelling units allowed in town and will not require owner occupancy in the larger unit.
After months of discussion, including a May 31 community meeting, the Planning and Zoning Commission passed the amendment last week in a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Shaun Mastroianni opposing.
An accessory unit is one that is located on the property of a larger dwelling in a single-family zone. The unit is a small, self-contained residence with its own kitchen and bathroom. It can be inside the larger dwelling, such as a basement apartment, or detached, such as an apartment over a garage or a cottage.
The town previously allowed a single family home to have one accessory unit internal to the main house but only if the main house was at least 35 years old, had a minimum of 2,000 square feet, and used public water and sewer service.
The commission’s proposed changes allowed a single family home to have one unit, either contained within the main house or over a detached garage or as a separate cottage. The amendment also allowed the building to be of any age and dropped the requirement of public utilities.
On Dec. 4, the commission held a public hearing on an amendment but delayed a vote because an alternate member, Lynn Conway, said she wanted to work with Town Planner Keith Brynes to clarify a number of issues. She was especially concerned about enforcement of the owner-occupancy requirement, which was a central tenet of that version of the amendment.
Among other issues, such as screening and water, Conway also expressed concerns that neighbors’ quality of life would be harmed if the units were used for short-term Airbnb rentals instead of as housing for family members.
On Tuesday, the commission responded to comments from the public hearing, to which the town Planning Department added its own comments and recommendations.
As recommended, the commission agreed to reduce the minimum size of a unit from 400 square feet to 300 square feet. The department said that cutting the size would allow units in older, smaller homes and over garages, likely resulting in the construction of fewer new detached structures.
On the other hand, the commission also agreed to reduce the maximum unit size from 1,200 square feet to 1,000 square feet. The department said that provision would remove some of the risk associated with larger-sized units. Part of the commission's debate has been that larger units can accommodate larger parties — creating quality-of-life problems in terms of noise or the need for more parking.
Although the Planning Department recommended an owner-occupancy requirement, David Rathbun, who chairs the commission, said it raised the problem of enforcement and other issues.
“What happens if the owner of the house has his mother living in a unit and the owner of the house dies and leaves the house to his sister in California, do you kick the mother out?” Rathbun asked.
Jason Vincent, director of planning, said the town didn’t have the capacity to check who was staying in the accessory units and whether they were family members or not.
Mastroianni objected to removing the owner-occupancy language, saying it left the units open to any type of use.
“If we put nothing in there, then there’s nothing policing it or saying it should be owner-occupied,” he said.
Curtis Lynch, vice chair of the commission, said enforcement was best taken care of by an ordinance.
Brynes clarified that the commissioners, except Mastroianni, wanted to send a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen asking them to create an ordinance governing short-term rentals.
Vincent pointed out that such an ordinance would have to be adopted by voters at a town meeting.
Another issue was whether an architecturally harmonious appearance could be required of newly constructed units as a means to preserve the character of neighborhoods.
The commission decided that the amendment would contain language requiring property owners to get the approval of the Architectural Design Review Board for new units.
After the vote, Conway told the commissioners that they had not taken into account her extensive discussions with Brynes about the ramifications of the accessory dwelling unit amendment.
“This commission asked me specifically to meet with Keith and my assumption was that either I would have been seated or have been able to participate in the discussion to elaborate on the hours of discussion I had with Keith,” she said.
She said it was obvious from the last meeting that the commissioners did not have the time or the bandwidth to go through all of the public hearing comments.
“That is why this commission asked me to meet with Keith separately and I just have to say I feel as if this was not due process and you did not thoroughly understand the points we brought up and it was a one-sided discussion.”
She said the owner-occupancy requirement was in keeping with the town's Plan of Conservation and Development because it would have given residents the ability to rent apartments where none now exist to take care of elderly parents or children who need housing. She also said the requirement would have given neighbors some recourse if problems arose with short-term rentals.
“It’s not the same thing as expanding the use of ancillary buildings for short-term rentals and Airbnb's. Putting owner occupancy in the regs was a way to have some kind of control over that," she said. "It’s correct that we don’t have a process for monitoring but if you have complaints from neighbors, then you’d have a zoning issue and it would be a valid complaint."