30 years ago, the city enacted zoning rules allowing Accessory Apartments – i.e. a separate apartment in an existing single family, owner occupied home. Back then the biggest opposition came from Chestnut Hill neighbors who worried that if the rules were carelessly drawn it could usher in BC student occupied housing that might become a neighborhood problem. Due to the very active involvement of Alderman Lisle Baker back then, on behalf of his Chestnut Hills constituents, a number of major changes were made to the original proposal to make it much more difficult to create Accessory Apartments. The good news: rowdy student filling Accessory Apartments never materialized in Chestnut Hill under those rules. The bad news: for the last 30 years remarkably few legal accessory apartments were created anywhere in the city, though plenty of illegal ones were.
The problem was that under those rules the only folks who could build them “by right” were people with large properties, a majority of houses that were eligible could only do it via the Special Permit process, and a large fraction of the houses in the city couldn’t do it all. i.e. “nanny flats” not “granny flats”.
For the last three, maybe four years, the City Council has been working on overhauling and loosening those rules. Once again, on the City Council, Lisle Baker on behalf of his constituents, has been the most vociferous opponent of loosening those rules.
In November the Zoning and Planning Committee held a public meeting in which a sizable number of speakers gave very personal testimony of why an accessory apartment was extremely important to them (everything from elderly parents, disabled children, needing income to stay in their home, to elderly citizens who wanted someone in the house to feel safe). Also at that meeting were some folks questioning details of the proposed rules as well as a few Newton Village Alliance folks who were against the entire proposal.
In November I understood that the Zoning & Planning Committee was about to vote it out of committee and the full board would be voting on it soon. Next some complication happened that reset the clock, rewound the process, and this week it was back all over again for another public meeting with the Zoning & Planning Committee. Someone more familiar than me with the rules of the council can probably explain that.
This past Monday they held a well attended meeting. Once again there were a number of proponents, once again many with personal stories and a number of Newton Village Alliance members (and others) in opposition. The gist of the proposed new rules are that most homes would be able to create an Accessory Apartment within their existing home”by right” and in some cases would require a Special Permit. The other half of the rules covered creating an accessory apartment in a new structure on the property. This was definitely the more controversial aspect of the new rules.
A very notable, and very heartening thing occurred. Newton Village Alliance folks got up and clearly said they supported allowing Accessory Apartments by right but strongly objected to the rules allowing separate structures “by right”. It really struck me as a milestone, in that the NVA up to now has nearly always been unalterably opposed to any new housing, in any form. To hear the NVA say they are FOR something rather than just AGAINST was a breath of fresh air. As a result, I paid a lot more attention to the specifics of the rule they were adamantly against (separate structure).
After the public comment section of the meeting, Councilor Baker then proposed a series of amendments. All of the amendments involved tightening things up and making it more difficult to create Accessory Apartments. Some of the amendments were minor tweaking, one of them dealt with the issue the NVA folks had strenuously objected to (allowing separate structures) but one rather benign sounding amendment about requiring parking would have the effect of nearly gutting the entire proposal and introducing all the same problems of the 30 year old rules.
In a nut shell, here’s the problem. There are sections of the city that were mostly built before there were zoning laws. I live in one – Upper Falls. Nonantum is another and there other areas all around the city. In these neighborhoods large numbers of existing houses have never met the current zoning rules for parking, because large fractions of the neighborhood were “grandfathered in” to zoning. This benign sounding “parking” amendment would in effect ban Accessory Apartments in most of those neighborhoods and make sections of the city second class citizens under the zoning rules. This despite the fact that no more people can live on the property if you add an Accessory Apartment.
This was the problem with the 30 year old rules. This is why we have a large number of illegal, uninspected accessory apartments in those neighborhoods now, and this is exactly one of the major issues that the new rules are intended to address. This amendment would once more change the new rules from “granny flats” back to “nanny flats”.
The new rules already address the Chestnut Hill’centric issue of unruly student housing since the owner must live on site. It’s absolutely unreasonable to once again allow those real, but minor, and readily addressable concerns in Chestnut Hill, to trump the incredible value of Accessory Apartments to those who need them elsewhere all over the city.