Questions, concerns raised over ADU bylaw draft 

Marblehead’s Abbot Hall. Photo by Spenser Hasak

The town’s Planning Board held its third public meeting Tuesday to continue discussion of the working draft zoning amendment bylaw, which would allow for the building of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in the Town of Marblehead.

The board will finalize the bylaw by Jan. 20 so that it can make the warrant for Town Meeting on May 1. 

The two previous public meetings regarding the ADU bylaw took place in June and November of 2022. Similar to the other forums, a Power Point presentation provided an overview of ADUs and their benefits in communities, followed by a run through of the working draft zoning amendment.

The American Planning Association recognizes an ADU as a “smaller, independent residential dwelling unit located on the same lot as a stand-alone (i.e., detached) single-family home.” The unit can be attached to the main home or it can be a separate, detached unit on the property. 

At the end of the presentation, the meeting was opened to public comment, and the proposed amendment was met with many questions and heavy pushback from some attending the meeting — more so than both of the previous public forums. 

Some of the questions raised involved short-term rentals and parking. The bylaw for the ADUs states that short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs, are prohibited. However, the exact length to be considered “short term” is not currently defined in the bylaw.

During the meeting, board members agreed that a definition would be added to the final draft. 

In the comments of the Zoom meeting, Renee Ramirez Keaney posed the question, “Would available on street parking be considered as the one available parking per ADU?”

Town Planner Rebecca Curran replied by stating that it is possible through a permit, but not by right.

“I think the answer to that is, ‘It could be,’” said Curran. “When you don’t have parking, you can’t do it as a matter of right, but you do it through a special permit.”

Many questions regarding the ADUs pertained to specific aspects or technicalities of the current bylaw draft, but some in attendance took issue with the overall concept of allowing ADUs in town.

James Full claimed that passing this bylaw would create a multitude of problems when it comes to the rental properties and would do more harm than good.

“What is wrong with the process in place right now if I want to build an inlaw suite on my property? Why do we need ADUs that open Pandora’s box to bring in trailers , RV’s, no enforcement on who’s going to occupy the dwelling after the family member dies,” said Full. “We have zoning and permitting and everything in process right now to deal with putting on an ADU/in law suite. Why are we reinventing the wheel?”

Board member Robert Schaeffner replied to Full’s comments and questions, stating that he was incorrect on the current zoning law, adding that, “There is nothing in place that allows you to build a separate apartment on your property.”

Full expressed a number of other concerns throughout the public comment section of the meeting, and stated that he and others in the community were confused by the proposal and that there is too much room for error.

“I just think there’s too many opportunities for too many things to go wrong here, and in the long term I don’t think there is any enforcement in place to regulate it.”

In the presentation, the board stated that they are looking into ADUs because of the aging population in Marblehead. It said that, over time, these units would naturally create affordable housing in the area.

The presentation also listed some of the benefits that ADUs provide, including allowing family (elderly parents or adult children) to live on the same property, offering a housing option for family caregivers, providing rental income and affordable housing, and improving safety by allowing illegal apartments to be converted to legal units. 

The current bylaw draft states that the purpose of ADUs is to increase the number, range and supply of small dwelling units and affordable housing in the area.

General requirements noted in the bylaw include one unit permitted for each principal dwelling unit and that the unit is either “within or attached to an existing single-family structure” or a “detached accessory building with a foundation.”

At least one owner of the primary unit must live in either the primary or accessory unit, and the ADU cannot be sold separately from the primary dwelling unit. 

The proposed bylaw also states that if an owner of a property wants to build an ADU, the proposal must go before the Planning Board, as it will be the Special Permit Granting Authority that decides if the ADU fits most of or all of the requirements. 

The board is also weighing the pros and cons of having a rent restriction on the ADUs. Board member Barton Hyte raised his concerns about leaving ADUs unrestricted, stating that the price of housing would go up.

“If we have it [ADUs] unrestricted — everyone can do it — you have the certain segment that will put ADUs on, they’ll get market value, and we will have more expensive housing,” said Hyte. “I’m really concerned about nurses and teachers and firemen and policemen being able to work in town. They can’t afford to live there. I think we’re headed in the right direction, I fully concur with it, I’m not opposed to it, but that’s the reason why I am concerned with the affordability issue.”

The Board has just over a week to revise and add to or detract from the bylaw before it is submitted to be on the Town Hall warrant. During that time, board members will continue to receive feedback from the public and address a number of topics and concerns pertaining to the ADU bylaw.