Sturbridge to weigh bylaw allowing apartments.
STURBRIDGE - A controversial zoning bylaw amendment that proposes to permit accessory dwelling units will make its way onto the annual town meeting warrant, but not with the Board of Selectmen's blessing.
After heated debate Monday night, selectmen voted in favor of placing the article on the ballot, with William A. Emrich the sole vote against, while unanimously recommending that voters take no action on the article.
Planning Board Chairman Thomas R. Creamer last week accused the Zoning Study Committee, a subcommittee of both the Board of Selectmen and the Planning Board, of acting in a way "directly contrary to the due diligence efforts and responsibilities" of the Planning Board, as well as being an affront to residents and the public hearing process.
He had plenty more to say about the subject on Monday night, noting during the meeting that the selectmen were essentially questioning their own work as members of the study committee.
Mr. Emrich and Arnold P. Wilson, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, are members of the Zoning Study Committee.
Mr. Emrich said he was uncomfortable with the way the proposed zoning bylaw amendment article was written and something needs to be done.
"The fact of the matter is, the Zoning Study Committee feels there are problems," Mr. Emrich said. "There are things we're not comfortable with, and there are things we would like to see change."
According to the article, an accessory unit is a separate housekeeping unit, complete with its own sleeping, cooking and sanitary facilities, that is contained within the structure of a single-family dwelling or attached accessory structure but functions as a separate unit. Accessory dwelling units would be allowed only with a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Space for the unit would be no more than 600 square feet, or 20 percent less that the total square footage of the existing home, and the unit would have to be clearly a subordinate part of the single-family dwelling.
A two-thirds majority vote at the April 30 town meeting is required for the article to pass.
Selectman Steven G. Halterman, who stressed more than once that he spent eight years on the Planning Board, said he was not comfortable with the article, either.
"It's too open-ended, and I'm worried what it will do to a neighborhood," Mr. Halterman said.
Mr. Emrich said the Zoning Study Committee feels that tenants should be "blood relatives" and not outsiders. He said he wanted to know how this would affect tax assessments and sewage use in town.
Questions about taxes, Mr. Creamer said, are not the role of the Planning Board to determine, but that of the Finance Department and the assessors office.
Town Administrator James J. Malloy said he assumes that a home with an accessory dwelling unit would be assessed at a higher rate. Mr. Creamer, reading from the proposed article, said a sanitarian or professional engineer must certify the existing or proposed improvements to new or existing sewage disposal systems.
Both Mr. Creamer and Mary Blanchard, a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals and candidate for Board of Selectmen, made a point that the discrepancy apparently lies in the language.
"The interesting part about this is if this was titled `Accessory Dwelling In-Law Use,' none of this discussion would be taking place," Mr. Creamer said. "It didn't say in-law apartment on it because, based on what Mrs. Bubon (Town Planner Jean Bubon) was getting from the folks at the Zoning Study Committee, this is what the majority wanted. This is it."
Carol A. Childress, chairman of the Opacum Land Trust and member of the Community Preservation and Public Lands Advisory committees, said the terms "accessory apartments" and "in-law apartments" were being used synonymously, despite having two very different meanings and usage. Furthermore, she said, some homeowners might take advantage of the area being a tourist attraction.
"Sturbridge is a tourist town, and I see homeowners taking advantage, putting an apartment onto their house, have it posted on the Internet and getting vacationers here and tenants on a weekly basis," Mrs. Childress said. "So instead of having long-term tenants, you might have tenant of the week that will impact neighborhood, that will impact traffic. We will have people we don't know in our neighborhoods, and that concerns me."
Reading a portion of the proposed amendment verbatim, Mr. Creamer said, the purpose "was to provide homeowners with a means of obtaining, through tenants in accessory apartments, rental income, companionship, security and services, and thereby to enable them to stay more comfortable in their homes and neighborhoods they might otherwise be forced to leave."
Ms. Blanchard argued that, for due process, the article should go forward, adding that she has never seen an article that has stirred such contention in town.
Mr. Creamer argued for the proposed zoning bylaw amendment to be placed on the warrant as it reads because the Planning Board conducted due process. He said objections weren't voiced until after the Planning Board held six discussions and four public hearings, and approved the proposed amendment Jan. 9 with a 6-0-1 vote to forward the article to be placed on the town warrant.
"The voters who came to the meeting that night (Jan. 9) and left at the end of that public hearing were of the mind-set that this particular article would come before them because the process had been conducted," Mr. Creamer said. "Now, it's my belief and a majority of the members of the Planning Board that the public should be allowed to be speak on this issue..."
He made an impassioned plea for the selectmen to execute their duty without partisanship and put the article on the warrant and let the voters decide.
"I think the members of this board (selectmen) that are questioning it, especially those members who are on the Zoning Study Committee, you're actually questioning your work," Mr. Creamer said. "This is what we got. This is what we voted for. And I appreciate the fact that you are going to put it on the town warrant."
NAME: STURBRIDGE ZONING STUDY COMMITTEE; STURBRIDGE SELECTMEN; STURBRIDGE PLANNING BOARD