Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) – Some Questions and Answers

Editor’s Note: The Bedford Citizen thanks the Planning Department for preparing these Questions and Answers about Article 10—Zoning Bylaw Amendment Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

Q. Does the term ADU carry a different meaning from the current term accessory apartment?
Not really, but it’s a more widely-used term, and may be more clearly understood to include units that are on two levels or detached. The criteria in the bylaw are what count.

Q. How is a house with an ADU different from a two-family house or two houses on one lot?
The size of the ADU is limited, the property owner must occupy one of the two units, and the property can’t be divided or condo-ized.

Q. Will the bylaw allow “tiny houses on wheels”?
No, ADUs must be on a proper foundation and meet all building, life safety, and sanitary codes.

Q. How many accessory apartments have been approved under the current bylaw?
60 since this bylaw was introduced in 1991, equating to 2 per year. Some of these are likely to have been discontinued, so the current number is probably lower. A study of Greater Boston found that of all the municipalities which allow ADUs in some form, the average rate of approvals was 2.5 per year.

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Q. Is this bylaw amendment trying to solve any particular problem?
The town has a problem with a shortage of moderately sized, moderately priced housing units to match the demand arising from demographic and economic factors. The Comprehensive Plan and the Bedford Housing Study documented the high and growing senior population and the steady increase in the ratio of housing costs to income. Public consultation exercises have repeatedly heard concerns about the shortage of down-sizing options for seniors, and young adults are also having difficulty finding housing that they can afford in the area. This bylaw is not seen as an entire solution, but it is one avenue that could make a contribution. Also, for some families, it may provide a good solution to a need for multigenerational living, on-site care-giving, or rental income.

Q. Should we expect a surge in new dwelling units as a result of this amendment?
No, because ADUs don’t suit all homeowners’ circumstances, and detached units are usually more expensive to build than attached ones. The bylaw will still only allow one ADU per lot, but the options for the physical arrangement will be wider. It may make an accessory unit possible on some lots where the house doesn’t lend itself to an internal or attached unit, or where people want more separation. Other towns that have relaxed their rules for ADUs have experienced a small uptick in applications in the first few years, usually in single digits. So we’d expect a trickle rather than a surge.

Q. Should we expect a lot of additional students in the schools, or traffic on the streets?
No, because of the answer to the previous question, and because ADUs are more likely to match the needs of the growing number of senior or small households. The two-bedroom limit is being kept, and a tighter maximum square footage is being applied. However, children will not be prohibited (and should not under Fair Housing laws).

Q. Will a detached ADU be allowed on all residential lots?
The rules apply to all residential districts, but the lot must be conforming to current zoning (for example in terms of minimum lot area and frontage), and the main house must be a single-family dwelling. Existing internal/attached ADUs are scattered around town. Corner lots may have difficulty meeting the setback rules for a detached ADU since it must be behind the house in relation to both streets. Other factors such as wetlands or the position of existing buildings could constrain some lots. Non-conforming lots would need to seek a special permit or variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals under the general provisions that apply to them under the Zoning Act and Section 7 of the Zoning Bylaw.

Q. My house already has an accessory apartment, approved under the existing bylaw, but it is bigger than the proposed new size limits. Will the proposed amendment make it illegal?
No, under zoning law, buildings and uses that comply with the bylaw before it changes are protected (“grandfathered”).

Q. How will detached ADUs be taxed?
The whole property will still be taxed as residential, with a current rate of $12.96 per $1,000. To the extent that the ADU adds to the estimated sales value of the property, it will increase the tax bill. The Assessors are used to applying appropriate assessment methods to internal and attached ADUs and will need to extend their work to detached ones. They may draw on the experience of other towns.

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