|By Chris Maza|
LONGMEADOW – The Planning Board voted on Oct. 2 not to support a zoning bylaw amendment proposal that will be voted on at the Special Town Meeting that would allow accessory apartments in town.
Members of the board, as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals, School Committee and the public voiced concerns with the proposal, which was made by the Housing Authority with the primary purpose of helping families provide adequate, affordable space to an aging population.
The proposed bylaw would limit apartments to 900 square feet, including cooking, living and sanitary facilities. No more than two adults and two children would be allowed to live in that space and no dormitory-style rentals would be permitted.
The homeowner would be required to live in either the main house or the apartment.
“Currently a homeowner can add rooms to their house within the restrictions of the town bylaws. They can also rent out rooms in their house,” Ed Kline, chair of the Housing Authority, said. “What distinguishes an accessory apartment, not currently permitted, is a walled-off unit from the main house. It offers privacy.”
Kline suggested that primarily families who wished to allow elderly family members to have a living arrangement close by or to allow elderly homeowners to have on-site accommodations for caretakers would utilize the apartments.
At multiple public hearings, the public was asked to voice their opinions on housing in town and the need for more affordable housing options for seniors was one of the primary concerns, Kline said.
Research on the subject, he added, showed that accessory apartments increase home values and would therefore further benefit the community with increased tax revenues.
Planning Board Chair Walter Gunn, the only member who voted in favor of recommending the bylaw, suggested the Housing Authority pull the article from the warrant
“I voted for it, but for the record, I did go to the Housing Authority meeting [on Oct. 1] and myself and the town manager recommended not going forward with this at Town Meeting all because the same night is the vote on the casino referendum in Palmer and there well be a lot of paranoid, upset people at our Town Meeting,”?he said, adding that Longmeadow would be voting on its own non-binging casino referendum that if passed would compel town leaders to write a letter to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission recommending a casino not be placed in Springfield.
He said he didn’t want the accessory apartment bylaw discussion to become a muddied part of the casino debate and if voted down, the Housing Authority would not be able to bring it back before the town for two years.
While he voted against recommending the bylaw, Planning Board member Roy Johansen said the town does have an aging population and a course of action to make staying in Longmeadow easier would need to be developed.
Building Commissioner Paul Healy’s said in a letter to the Planning Board his only concern was making sure accessory apartments fall within the proper setbacks. Fire Chief Eric Madison had no issues, other than a request that a provision be added requiring the fire department be notified of any accessory dwellings for their records.
Police Chief Robert Siano, however, voiced concern in a letter to the board. He said the bylaw change proposal was “coming at a difficult time,” specifically with the potential of a casino coming to Springfield.
“This would definitely change who might be coming into town (casino workers),” he wrote. “I have spoken with police chiefs near Connecticut casinos and they have stated several of their multi-family homes are being used by casino workers to ‘hot bed,’ that is to say someone is always coming and going at all times during the day and night as their shifts begin and end.”
He added that if another bylaw change is made at the Special Town Meeting allowing on-street parking, it could create an issue as several homes only have single driveways.
Planning Board member Bruce Colton listed several issues he had with the proposal, prefacing his comments by saying he previously had supported an accessory apartment proposal in the past that allowed an exterior door, but no other outside construction on a house. That was withdrawn because of uproar from the town.
Colton said his first concern was there were no restrictions regarding who could utilize the apartments.
“All of the examples that are given, with the exception of health care workers, involve family, however, nothing in the bylaw limits this to family members,” he said.
He added because the bylaw proposal includes the allowance of children, it raises issues regarding school impacts.
School Committee Chair Michael Clark said that the accessory apartment bylaw would raise “a whole host of issues for the district for which we are not prepared to address.”
“We have a significant overpopulation of students as it is,” he said. “To add two more students to a house, or to add even 10 more students to the district would require us to hire additional staff. We are not equipped financially to add staff, especially at the elementary level.”
He added that with affordable housing comes a higher possibility of students with special education needs and an increase in students “who are not prepared to excel at the level students in Longmeadow do excel.”
Clark explained that Longmeadow has done well educating students with special needs in-district, but the programs are based on specific populations and if the town were to have to start sending students out of district, it could cost $60,000 to $240,000 per student.
Kline argued the town already allows homeowners to rent out rooms and since that practice is already legal, he didn’t see how a bylaw allowing for a privacy barrier would create a huge influx of new students in the schools.
Colton also said that because of changes in neighborhood density, values of surrounding houses could be lowered and there are no restrictions regarding the size of the lot upon which an addition could be built.
Addressing the requirement that the homeowner live on the premises, he pointed out that many residents go away for long periods of time, leaving no supervision over the property.
Resident Dan Lyanaugh said he “couldn’t think of a sillier waste of time than this bylaw,” pointing to enforcement as a primary concern and stating that even if a permit application to build an apartment is denied by the building commissioner, it could still be allowed by the Zoning Board of Appeals with a variance.
“They way you’re making it is so I have to police my neighbors,” he said.
He added having apartments available in town would allow those from other towns and cities to “cherry-pick” educational opportunities in Longmeadow.
Resident Jane Newman also spoke against the bylaw, arguing that it would “urbanize” the town.
“This is a very serious situation. You are urbanizing a community that is not an urban community. It is not Northampton; it is not Amherst. It’s more like a Weston. They don’t break up their homes in Weston,” she said. “Our taxes are just as high and it’s a privilege to live here. When you live in Longmeadow, there comes the responsibility to maintain your property and keeping your home a single family dwelling.”
Newman voiced distrust in residents’ willingness to be honest about their utilization of accessory dwellings.
“You’re not going to be able to control the environment. You’re going to have people say that they are related when they’re not,” she said. “I think that you have an idealized idea of a Longmeadow resident as upstanding and never going to take advantage of a situation like this and they will.”
Supporting her argument, Newman pointed to a situation with her neighbor, who she accused of having two illegal apartments in her home, stating police presence was constantly necessary and the homeowner was not there to maintain the property for long portions of the year.
“The whole impact was so unpleasant that if you wanted to sell your house, you couldn’t because the police were there all the time,” she said.
Select Board Chair Marie Angelides said, in addition to stipulations within the bylaw, new regulations would have to be established and enforced.
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