Amherst planners eye changes to accessory dwelling bylaw

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2021

AMHERST — Making it easier for homeowners to construct accessory dwelling units, sometimes known as in-law apartments, is an aim of a zoning change that could come before the Town Council later this summer.

The Planning Department presented a plan to councilors last week that would amend the supplemental dwelling unit bylaw, first adopted in 1968.

“This is perhaps one of the sensible things we can do to make better use of the existing built environment that we have in Amherst,” said District 4 Councilor Steve Schreiber, observing that the change would permit two-family homes in most zoning districts.

The proposal includes streamlining the permitting process by allowing most such additional units by right, increasing their size to up to 1,000 square feet, a 25% increase from the current cap of 800 square feet, and adding design guidelines.

Senior Planner Ben Breger told councilors, who endorsed an examination of this bylaw earlier this year, that such a change would have little impact on abutting properties and that the accessory units can be completely hidden or designed in appropriate ways.

“It’s a way to add density to single-family home neighborhoods without changing the character and feel of the neighborhood,” Breger said.

The council unanimously referred the matter for public hearings before the Planning Board and the Community Resources Committee, with reports to be completed this summer.

Accessory dwelling units can be attached, detached or contained, Breger said, and contain a bathroom, kitchen and living area. The larger size would allow accessory units to have more than one bedroom.

Structures that are clearly secondary to the main home, either attached or contained, would be allowed by right rather than by special permit, Breger said. Detached units would also be allowed by right, so long as they are 50% or less the size of the existing home.

Breger said the accessory dwelling units can benefit homeowners through rental income, allow them an opportunity to downsize on their own property, keep housing affordable, and provide flexibility for multiple generations of families living on the same property.

“It’s this idea of adding a secondary apartment to a single-family home,” Breger said.

Planning Director Christine Brestrup said she understands concerns from some in the community that these could add housing stock for college students. “The fact that there will be an owner occupant is an important mitigating factor,” Brestrup said.

Still, At-Large Town Councilor Alisa Brewer said councilors will need to assure the public that the amendment is not an opportunity for developers who rent to college students, or well-to-do parents of students, to purchase single-family homes and turn them into two-family homes.

Brestrup said Building Commissioner Rob Morra is confident that the town will enforce the rules to protect neighborhoods from such an impact.

The town’s master plan, housing production plan and housing market study have all recommended similar adjustments related to the supplemental dwelling unit bylaw, Breger said.