STONINGTON — Citing the need to clarify details, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted Tuesday to delay a decision on a zoning amendment that would broaden the allowable types of accessory dwelling units in town.
The decision followed a public hearing on the amendment at Mystic Middle School.
Alternate member Lynn Conway, who served on the commission Tuesday, said that although the amendment conforms to the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development, she wanted to work through a number of questions with Keith Brynes, town planner, and Jason Vincent, director of planning, before bringing the regulation to a vote.
“The devil is in the details,” she said.
An accessory dwelling unit is a small, self-contained residence with its own cooking and bathing facilities located on the property of a larger, single-unit dwelling in a single-family zone. The accessory unit can be contained within the larger dwelling, such as a basement apartment, or detached, such as a cottage or an apartment over a separate garage.
The town’s current regulations allow a single-family home to have one accessory dwelling unit provided that the home is at least 35 years old, comprises a minimum of 2,000 square feet and has a connection to public water and sewer service.
The commission’s proposed changes would allow a single family home to have one unit contained either within the main house, over a detached garage or as a separate cottage. For converting or adding a unit, the main building’s minimum square footage would continue to be 2,000 square feet but the structure could be of any age and would not be required to have a public water and sewer connection. The minimum square footage would be 400 square feet.
For new units, the amendment would require property owners to occupy either the main dwelling or the accessory unit. However, legal nonconformities would continue to allow exceptions.
Conway asked for tighter wording on the allowable height, square footage and appearance of new construction as well as screening and parking.
She also raised a question about loosening the regulation requiring public water and sewer service.
“I would hate to see wells run dry on neighboring properties,” she said. “It’s a reality here in Stonington. There are many areas where we have issues with wells.”
Conway also asked how the town would monitor whether the property was owner-occupied.
Brynes said, “The town could require a yearly affidavit submitted to zoning official.”
She also expressed deep concerns about whether the units would be used for short-term Airnb rentals, which she said would negatively affect neighboring residents’ quality of life.
Brynes said zoning does not regulate the allowable types of rentals.
Speaking in favor of the amendment were residents Fiona and Rick LaFountain, who said the amendment would benefit families with members who needed housing.
“The way the Accessory Dwelling Units stand now, it’s very restrictive,” said Fiona La Fountain. “I look at it as a family unit for the elderly parent or newly married couple. It’s a good thing for the town.”
Resident Bill Sternberg also spoke in favor of the amendment and urged the commission to lift the sewer and public water requirement and to lower the square footage from 400 to 300 square feet.
Resident Dave Hammond, who chairs the Economic Development Commission, said his commission endorsed the amendment because it was aligned with the Plan of Conservation and Development and would expand the town’s housing options.
“We don’t have very good diversity of housing stock in Stonington and this would help make diversity of housing options in Stonington better,” he said.
Speaking in opposition to the amendment was resident Carlene Donnarummo, who said that while she was in favor of the owner-occupancy requirement, she was against adding new structures to properties because it would change the town’s character. She said adding units to existing structures would be acceptable.
The amendment was intended to address the growing demand for lower-cost rental units in the region, Brynes said at the beginning of the meeting.
The accessory dwelling units were considered a low-impact method of expanding housing, he said.
“There’s no financial burden on the town in comparison to a large development,” he said. “You’re just adding units here and there to existing houses either on public utilities or well and septic.”
According to a 2018 housing study by the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments and the Southeastern Connecticut Housing Alliance, Southeastern Connecticut will see an increase of 7,200 households and about 4,000 of those would earn less than $50,000 per year between 2015 and 2030, increasing the demand for lower-cost rental units.
He said 8 percent of Stonington’s single-family homes are currently eligible for accessory dwelling units as the regulation stands.
“So, another way of saying that is 92 percent of Stonington’s housing is not qualified for accessory dwelling units now, but with the amendment about 52 percent could be eligible,” he said.