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Council makes it easier to create accessory dwelling units

(Somerville Wire) – Carriage houses, backyard cottages, “tiny houses,” and other accessory dwelling units can now be created “by right” anywhere in a Neighborhood Residence district in Somerville.

The City Council voted unanimously at their Sept. 8 meeting to enact amendments to the City’s zoning code to make it easier for property owners to convert backyard structures into rental apartments or condos.

Ward 3 City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Land Use, said the goal was to streamline the process.

“Prior to 2019, backyard cottages were not allowed anywhere in Somerville,” Ewen-Campen explained. “You were not permitted to make those structures residential.”

In December 2019, the City enacted a sweeping overhaul of its zoning code—the first in 30 years. As one small part of the 552-page ordinance, ADUs became an allowable building type in the Neighborhood Residence district, but property owners were required to go through a site plan approval process that included two neighborhood meetings and a hearing before the Urban Design Commission.

“That is the same process that we require for skyscrapers and large apartment buildings,” said Ewen-Campen.

Calling it “an inappropriate amount of public process for a backyard cottage,” Ewen-Campen said, “You shouldn’t have two required neighborhood meetings and going before the Urban Design Commission just to convert your garage into an apartment.”

The Urban Design Commission was established by the 2019 zoning ordinance. It is tasked with reviewing how the proposed design of new developments impacts Somerville’s “public realm.”

“These backyard cottages, it’s a real stretch to consider these to be in the public realm,” said Councilor-at-Large Jake Wilson, another member of the Committee on Land Use.

“The thinking was basically to reduce some red tape, reduce some of the workload for the UDC, and basically to encourage more of these ADUs in the city,” Wilson told the Council.

“There’s actually been a very small number of these that have even been applied for,” he added.

New ADUs will now be subject to the same owner requirements as other allowable building types in a Neighborhood Residence district.

“By-right development does not mean that anyone can just do it without any eyes on it. It still has to go through a process in order to be permitted and approved. This is not just opening things up to the Wild West,” Wilson said.

The process generally includes obtaining a building permit or certificate of occupancy, in accordance with the rules for the Neighborhood Residence district.

One of these rules is that if an ADU is the third unit in a property zoned NR, “it would need to be affordable,” Wilson explained.

City Council President Matt McLaughlin added, “When we passed the previous zoning, we said if anyone wants to build a third unit, whether it’s attached to the building or a carriage house, then that unit would have to be middle-income affordable housing. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any of those built yet, but maybe we’ll have an affordable carriage house someday.”

Photo credit: An accessory dwelling unit sits behind a triple-decker near Union Square. Photo by Linda Pinkow.

Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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