WELLFLEET — If the planning board’s Aug. 17 public hearing on two proposed zoning changes is any indication, there may be a long, hot debate at the Sept. 10 special town meeting.
That’s when voters will be asked to consider tweaking the town’s zoning bylaw to address the need for more affordable and year-round housing. Both proposals were written by select board Chair Ryan Curley and sponsored by his board.
But town officials’ views on the changes are divided. The planning board has endorsed one proposal but rejected the other.
One change would allow cottage colonies to be occupied year-round rather than seasonally, except in the National Seashore, where the seasonal restriction would remain. The planning board majority voted to oppose this change.
The other change would allow deed-restricted affordable houses to be built on lots currently classified as too small to be buildable. After a long debate at the hearing, it narrowly won the planning board’s support in a 4-3 vote.
Because these are zoning changes, the measures will require a two-thirds majority to pass at town meeting.
The cottage-colony proposal would allow year-round occupancy with no affordability requirement. Because of their modest size, Curley told the planning board, these units would be far cheaper to rent or own than a typical single-family house in Wellfleet, where the median cost is about $900,000.
“For someone to occupy a cottage at a fraction of a median-priced house, I’d take that any day,” Curley said.
Ten percent of Wellfleet’s current housing stock is restricted to April-through-November occupancy.
Curley said there are about 200 units in cottage colonies and about 150 are outside the National Seashore. Many have been converted to condominiums, and some condo associations might not allow year-round occupancy. It would be up to those associations to update their bylaws if owners wanted to occupy units year-round, he said.
“We need every single unit we can get, especially those at the lower end of the spectrum, because right now the minimum lot size in Residential-1 is 30,000 square feet and Residential-2 is 40,000,” Curley said. “You’re talking three-to-five-bedroom houses, and nobody can afford those.”
Planning board member David Rowell predicted the change would create a host of water-quality and parking problems. The cottages would also have to be winterized, at considerable expense.
“It’s not as simple as waving a wand and turning them into year-round,” Rowell said.
Planning board member David Mead-Fox asked whether “it would be more sensible to evaluate environmental factors like wastewater load, so we have some idea of what we’re getting into and the consequences.”
Mead-Fox also expressed concern about drinking water. “If we don’t get this right, we could make large sections of Wellfleet unlivable,” he said.
The highest demand on the water system is in the summer, said Curley, when the seasonal units are already fully occupied. The change to year-round, he said, would affect the winter, when water demand is lowest.
Curley said the board of health is set to implement new regulations and would have jurisdiction over septic issues. Homeowners in sensitive areas are already required to install specialized systems, he said.
Planning board Chair Gerald Parent predicted the change would send the price of the cottages skyrocketing. Curley argued that units not on the water would remain inexpensive.
“Those are ideal housing situations for young families and single people,” he said. “We are in a housing crisis. The income someone would have to earn to afford a median-priced house is $188,000.”
Cottages in waterfront colonies are already being upgraded by wealthy homeowners, according to Curley.
Size is already regulated by the cottage colony bylaw. Units must contain between 550 and 768 square feet. Those limitations would remain.
Select board member Kathleen Bacon said she knows year-round residents living in seasonal condominiums who have to find a place to rent every winter. There are also elderly people in town who would like to downsize, she said.
“The point is to create year-round housing at different levels,” said Bacon. “It’s another tool. I know three individuals who would be grateful for this change.”
Planning board member Bonnie Shepard said the board appeared to be focusing on worst-case scenarios. “I’m not sure how realistic they are,” she said. “Frankly, it doesn’t seem to me a very risky move.”
Ultimately Rowell, Parent, Alfred Pickard, and Beth Singer voted not to recommend the change. Mead-Fox, Shepard, and Olga Kahn favored it.
A second proposed bylaw change would add two buildable-lot categories that would apply to properties outside the National Seashore with no existing buildings. The first, labeled “Affordable Lot,” would allow a single-family home to be built by right — without a special permit — on lots with at least 10,000 square feet of upland. The qualifying lots would mostly range from 10,000 to 30,000 square feet, said Curley. The most common size is about one-third acre, he said.
The second category, labeled “Affordable Undersized Lot,” would allow a single-family dwelling to be built on a lot smaller than 10,000 square feet, but only with a special permit from the zoning board of appeals.
“It’s very unlikely these will be built on,” Curley said.
Both categories would include affordability restrictions: they could be rented or sold only to those earning 80 percent or less of area median income.
Construction would have to comply with all board of health well and Title 5 requirements and the conservation commission’s wetlands regulations.
Curley said there are 18 lots of more than 10,000 square feet with a high probability of meeting the requirements in the proposal. Another 26 may be able to meet the requirements. “Those are various shades of ‘maybe,’ ” Curley said.
Under the bylaw, a lot would need at least 20 feet of frontage on a previously approved road or a road deemed to have suitable width and grade to support traffic. Building setbacks would be at least 15 feet. Dwellings built within 25 feet of a principal structure on a neighboring lot would be required to have a six-foot stockade fence.
“I understand affordability, but you’re changing density,” Parent said. “You’re going backwards. And you can say we gained four or five houses but what are you doing to the environment?”
Curley responded, “Almost nothing,” since enhanced septic systems would be required, he said.
The planning board voted to recommend the proposal with Kahn, Shepard, Singer, and Mead-Fox in favor and Pickard, Rowell, and Parent opposed.
Following the hearing, Parent criticized Curley for not coming to the planning board sooner so that they could have crafted a proposal together. Curley responded, “I did come in. To two meetings.”