WELLFLEET — The planning board sees nothing but trouble if the town adopts a proposed bylaw allowing more accessory dwelling units, judging from its reaction at a May 5 public hearing on the proposal.
Voters at June’s annual town meeting will be asked to consider two zoning bylaw changes that would allow limited-size accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, by right in all zoning districts, as long as they comply with the town’s other regulations along with state and federal laws.
The exception would be properties in the National Seashore, where ADUs would require a special permit.
The units, containing no more than 1,200 square feet, would have to be year-round rentals, under the proposed provisions, to add diversity to current housing offerings and to address the extreme need for year-round rental housing on the Outer Cape.
Once an ADU received a certificate of occupancy, it could not be legally occupied under the proposal until it is registered with an agent appointed by the town, who would monitor and keep records of such units and register them with the assessor, building dept., and health dept.
There would be penalties for noncompliance, such as using the units as short-term rentals. Unit owners would be required to file affidavits of compliance annually.
One of the two ADU proposals was submitted as a petitioned article, the other as an article sponsored by the select board. They are nearly identical and were done in reaction to a decision by the planning board last winter to abandon its own plan to propose an ADU bylaw for this year’s annual town meeting.
It is still up to the planning board to hold public hearings on each of the ADU proposals, and the board will have the option of making recommendations for or against them at the town meeting, or of making no recommendation at all.
A May 5 public hearing on the petitioned article ran more than 2½ hours and was continued to Wednesday, May 19, when the selectmen’s article is scheduled for its public hearing.
The petitioned article was drafted by members of various local boards who are familiar with the town’s housing crisis. They include Elaine McIlroy, the local housing authority chair; Sharon Rule-Agger, a member of the local housing partnership and the new affordable housing trust; select board member Helen Miranda Wilson; and planning board member Olga Kahn.
They used some provisions in the Cape Cod Commission’s model ADU bylaw, along with those in place in eight other communities on the Cape. Local attorney Bruce Bierhans reviewed the proposal before it was submitted.
On May 5, planning board members raised a host of potential problems with the petition. Enforcement would be impossible, they said. Adding a large number of dwelling units could worsen water and wastewater issues. The communities that have enacted such bylaws didn’t have the fragile water conditions of Wellfleet, they said.
Planning board member David Mead-Fox agreed with the need for more year-round rentals, but worried they would become Airbnbs or other short-term rentals. “If somebody realizes they can make more on short-term rentals, that’s what they’re going to do,” he said. “We don’t want an explosion of units that are short-term rentals.”
David Rowell, the most outspoken opponent of the bylaw change on the planning board, said that was exactly what would happen: once people secured their certificates of occupancy, they could do what they wanted.
Bierhans spoke in favor of the petition. “What we have tried to draft is the best we could come up with at this time, and we’ll see how it works,” he said. “Not to do anything is not the answer.”
Gerald Parent, the planning board chair, countered that everyone on the planning board “completely agrees with the urgency of this; that’s one of the things we all share. What we’re trying to do is raise issues so it is more likely to succeed.”
Parent argued that one of the problems with the proposal was that it didn’t come from the planning board. “I know, after 27 years on the planning board, that when the planning board sends an article to the town meeting floor, we beat the hell out of it first,” he said. “Most petitioned articles have problems that arise in the future because they are not vetted as openly and as well.”
Stefanie Coxe, a member of the SmarterCape Partnership, refuted the argument that the bylaw would create an explosion of short-term rentals. None of the eight Cape Cod towns with ADU bylaws, she said, has had more than 10 units created per year. “It’s not something a ton of people will do, and not everyone will be able to do it,” Coxe said.
Health regulations limit the number of potential ADUs. If the septic system’s limit is three bedrooms, for instance, that is as many as the property owner could have as a total, in the main house and accessory unit.
The planning board continued the hearing rather than closing it on May 5 so that proponents of the petitioned article can answer some of the board’s questions and lobby for support during the May 19 meeting. The select board’s ADU article will also be heard that night. Parent described it as “99¾ percent” the same as the petitioned article. The planning board will then decide whether it will recommend either proposal or none.
Board members also intend to put together a report for the night of town meeting containing their comments.
Both ADU proposals delete the current Affordable Accessory Dwelling Unit bylaw. As part of the new proposal, property owners can rent their accessory units at market rates or take advantage of the affordable housing tax exemption if leased at affordable rates.