Accessory dwelling units now ‘by right’ in Greenfield 

Staff Writer
Published: 7/9/2020 5:15:23 PM

GREENFIELD — The city now allows accessory dwelling units, sometimes known as ADUs or in-law apartments, “by right” and not everyone likes the idea —  though many believe the ordinance will simply be used as a way to keep an aging parent or disabled child close while allowing them some independence.

In August 2016, City Council passed an Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance that made it legal for residents to build up to 900-square-foot apartments either inside existing owner-occupied homes as additions, as detached structures, or inside existing detached structures, such as garages or carriage houses. However, they needed a special permit to do so, which allowed abutters an opportunity to voice their concerns.

Earlier this year, the council, after reviewing an amendment to the ordinance presented by Precinct 5 Councilor Tim Dolan and Precinct 7 Councilor Otis Wheeler allowing those types of structures to be built “by right,” overwhelmingly approved it, so residents can now build on their property by obtaining a building permit, having a site plan review done by the city’s Planning Board and obtaining a certificate of occupancy when the project is done. They do not need a special permit.

Original ordinance

In 2016, former At-Large City Councilor Patrick Devlin and his wife, Lynne Ballard, learned their next-door neighbor at 907 Bernardston Road had applied for a special permit to build an 882-square-foot cottage on her 2.5-acre property. Devlin said it would have sat 30 feet from his property, overlooked his swimming pool and created a nightmare for drainage on his property.

“I never heard about a public hearing for the recent amendment,” he said. “That’s too bad, because I would have liked to comment on it, since we’ve been through it.”

Devlin, who once chaired the council’s Economic Development Committee, said the original intent of the ordinance was to improve population density within a mile of the downtown, not in outlying areas of the city.

“It was a way to allow new units to hook into the sewer system, but it has morphed and morphed since then,” he said.

He and his wife bought their home on Bernardston Road just north of Lovers Lane two decades ago for the view, privacy and wildlife — a certain quality of life.

“We paid extra to have that,” he said. “We didn’t want a structure overlooking our pool and blocking that view. I think the city has to really look at each project and consider everything, from the runoff a project might cause for a neighbor to other factors. I think anyone with legitimate issues should be able to have a say in what their neighborhood looks like.”

Al Norman, a resident of Precinct 5, agrees. He said a neighbor who might be affected by a building that sits just feet from their property line should have the opportunity to speak about it. The special permit process allowed that.

A consultant steps in

Chris Lee, who recently presented a webinar for those in Greenfield who might be interested in building such a unit, created Backyard ADUs in Easthampton after realizing the best opportunities in real estate were in a homeowner’s backyard, he said.

“Last summer I was reviewing local ordinances and bylaws throughout the Pioneer Valley and realized more and more towns and cities were more frequently than not allowing ADUs,” he said. “I set up this company to help property owners navigate the processes in each town or city.

“What I’ve seen, for the most part, is that most people want a place for their aging mother or a child that can’t move away, but wants to live on their own. As property owners age, many want to do something but don’t know what, so they sell or do nothing. Here’s another option.”

Lee witnessed one person in Easthampton “up in arms” about a neighbor building an ADU, but when it was finished, the neighbor “cooled off” and realized it wasn’t so bad.

“The process won’t happen in a black box in Greenfield,” he said. “People need to follow the process, and as far as neighbors are concerned, people shouldn’t buy a property for the view unless they’re willing to buy the acreage to keep it.”

Lee said he sees slow growth so far with ADUs, noting that most towns and cities will be lucky if they see five built a year. Greenfield has seen two in almost five years.

Councilors present the amendment

Wheeler said he and Dolan brought the amendment to the council because they saw a need for more housing in Greenfield.

“We saw that very few special permits had been applied for since 2016,” he said. “Two were granted, one was retracted (Devlin’s neighbor).”

The two built are on Pleasant Street and Holland Avenue, which is just finishing up construction. According to the city, there were no complaints about either.

Wheeler, who was appointed by former City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud a couple years ago to the Affordable Housing Project Ad Hoc Committee, said that experience gave him the opportunity to look more closely at the ordinance and at what surrounding towns were doing.

“I think making it ‘by right’ serves the public good,” he said.

The committee was formed after the homeless encampment on the common was disbanded in 2018.

“It brought focus to affordable housing and how to approach it from more than one direction,” Wheeler said. “This will expand the housing stock slowly. I have to say, respectfully, it isn’t my business as a neighbor what happens next to me as long as it’s legal. As a society, we agree that there are certain things that are unacceptable, but we can’t decide we don’t like what something looks like on another person’s property.”

Wheeler said there are enough checks and balances. For instance, during a site plan review by the Planning Board, it will consider privacy and how an ADU might adversely affect an abutter.

Norman said the city’s attorney has informally written that it is permissible for an ADU to be a condo that is owned by someone other than the owner of the principal residence, and that’s unacceptable to him.

“This is just a dodge to allow every lot to have two homes on it — a big one and a small one,” Norman said. “The principal landowner will own the entire single lot, while a second owner just owns the condo/ADU, but no land. This is a huge change in zoning law and is a far cry from the in-law apartments it was sold as. It’s really an opportunity for modular home developers to make some cash.”

When asked about Norman’s concern that heirs might have problems selling when an owner dies and they try to sell the property, but what Norman refers to as a “condo” on that property is owned by someone other than the deceased family member’s estate, Lee said with properly written bylaws, there will be no ownership issues and the town will have nothing to worry about. 

“In fact, the town will have the opportunity to increase tax revenue if they embrace it,” he said.

Lee said he also doesn’t see a lot of people deciding to build ADUs on their properties, because they will have to take out good-size mortgages for them,” he said. 

“I just don’t see people doing this without a lot of thought,” Lee said.

Approval process

The amendment was passed overwhelmingly earlier this year. Two public hearings were held on Feb. 11 and March 5. The first was held in the second-floor meeting room in City Hall with standing room only, and the second was not as well attended, Wheeler said. About 25 people spoke in favor of the amendment and three, including Norman, spoke against it.

Norman said he doesn’t like that changes were made after the amendment was passed, but Wheeler said a few changes were made making the amendment more strict, a compromise in line with what Mayor Roxann Wedegartner had asked.

“We were able to amend the amendment and not have to hold another public hearing because what we added was more strict and more in line with the original ordinance,” Wheeler said. “You only have to hold a public hearing if you make substantive changes.”

Wheeler said he’s sorry some people missed the public hearings, but legal notices on Jan. 23 and 27 ran in the newspaper and the hearings were listed on the city’s website, on social media and on Dolan’s councilor website.

Wheeler added that minutes of the Economic Development Committee meetings of March 10 and April 14, where the changes were discussed, were approved and are part of the public record, so anyone can request them.

“The process to request the minutes was explained to Mr. Norman in an email from City Council President Ashli Stempel on May 19,” Wheeler said.

The suggested revisions and more specifics are also available at bit.ly/3gxCtCa.




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