WELLFLEET — Citing what board member Beth Singer called “insurmountable” obstacles, the planning board officially ended its three-month effort to draft a joint bylaw regulating accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and affordable accessory dwelling units (AADUs) at its Feb. 17 meeting.
“That’s done,” said chair Gerald Parent. “Over with.”
The planning board began re-examining the existing AADU bylaw — a two-decade-old relic — last December. Board members said the bylaw offered too small a financial incentive to lure home owners away from the promise of Airbnb rates and summer rentals, and the “affordable” designation created too much red tape for renters.
On Jan. 6, the board settled on drafting an umbrella bylaw as its best course of action. The bylaw would both legalize Wellfleet ADUs and allow for qualifying units to transition easily between ADUs and AADUs — opening year-round rentals up to a larger swath of town residents.
But at the board’s Feb. 3 meeting, the initiative hit a snag. Parent reported a development he called “horribly sobering.” He said that conversations with town counsel and Building Inspector Paul Fowler had made it clear that turning any accessory unit in town into an accessory dwelling unit (the crucial difference between, say, a shed and a small apartment is the existence of a kitchen sink, stove, and space for a refrigerator) would trigger Wellfleet’s definition of “new construction.”
That would require the home owner to bring his septic system up to current Title 5 regulations. Given the prevalence of Wellfleet houses with their own wells and septic systems, “that cuts out an awful lot — a majority — of the houses in Wellfleet,” Parent said on Feb. 17.
He is “not against affordable housing,” Parent insisted. But at the Feb. 3 and Feb. 17 meetings of the board, he emphasized again and again what he called the futility of proceeding with the new bylaw.
To some present at the Feb. 17 meeting, though, his argument seemed shaky. In a lengthy statement, Select Board Chair Michael DeVasto questioned whether Parent had done due diligence, and whether Title 5 regulations should affect the planning board’s business at all.
“It doesn’t seem like the health agent or the board of health was consulted,” DeVasto said. “I’ve spoken to the health agent as well as an attorney about the interpretation of ‘new construction.’ I have gotten different readings on that.”
Health Agent Hillary Greenberg-Lemos did not respond to a request for comment before press time.
“The planning board is not the permitting agency for Title 5, and Title 5 has nothing to do with zoning,” DeVasto continued. “So, really, the issue here is whether the planning board should be basing their potential bylaw on something that they don’t have the authority to permit — to even interpret, really.”
Board members Beth Singer, Olga Kahn, Bonnie Shepard, and David Mead-Fox pushed back against the notion that the potential bylaw’s limited scope rendered it irrelevant. “Isn’t it good if one person can do it under all the conditions we set?” asked Singer. Board member David Rowell: “No.”
In the face of Parent’s opposition, another group of citizens decided to take up the initiative in the form of a petitioned town meeting article. In a Feb. 12 letter to Parent and the planning board, Sharon Rule-Agger of the Local Housing Partnership and Elaine McIlroy of the Housing Authority — two of the most prominent advocates for ADU-AADU reform — expressed their frustration.
“We feel that it may be necessary to move forward independently with a new ADU bylaw should we not reach agreement with the Planning Board soon,” they wrote. “We realize a new ADU bylaw will not by itself ‘fix’ our year-round housing problem. Nevertheless, we feel that every legal avenue should be pursued regardless of the small numbers of dwelling units it might yield.”
Helen Miranda Wilson of the select board added her voice. “I am their secret weapon,” she said at the Feb. 17 meeting. “The draft will probably have better language than most petitioned articles.”
Under the town charter, any 10 registered Wellfleet voters can submit a petitioned article for the annual town meeting warrant as long as it is filed at least 60 days before the date of the meeting. The select board has tentatively set this year’s meeting for June 5, which would make the deadline for petitioned articles April 6.
The challenges of getting a zoning bylaw passed as a petitioned article “are not insurmountable if it’s done in a certain way,” Wilson said.
Parent had his doubts. “Most of the time when a petitioned article is placed,” he said, “it has a lot more serious problems than when the planning board does it.”
“I was on the planning board,” Wilson told the Independent. “I’m kind of a drafting mule.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that March 1 was the deadline for submitting petitions for the annual town meeting warrant. The correct deadline is 60 days before the date of the meeting.