I have felt for a while that news coverage of politics and current events would benefit from the “Previously on…” segments that happen at the beginning of every episode of serialized TV shows.1 I think this is especially true at the local level, where so much of the context for any particular issue can get lost across long, disjointed strings of meeting agendas and minutes.

In that spirit, I thought I’d spend some time catching up on the Accessory Dwelling Units issue that has been bouncing around various municipal bodies since the beginning of this year.

What’s an Accessory Dwelling Unit?

Let’s say you own a house on some property in Greenfield. You’d like to build a small space on your property for your kid, your elderly parent, or some other family member to live in. That’s an Accessory Dwelling Unit.

Greenfield’s zoning ordinance currently recognizes three types of ADUs—Within, Attached, and Detached.2 An ADU-Within is one that is inside your house3, an ADU-Attached is one that is connected to your house, and an ADU-Detached is one that is completely separate from your house. You can only have one ADU on your property, and it can’t be more than 900 square feet.

All of the current kerfuffle pertains to detached Accessory Dwelling Units.

How did ADUs work before?

The City Council originally passed the ordinance allowing for the construction of Accessory Dwelling Units in August of 2016. Under that ordinance, you would need to go before the Greenfield Planning Board to get a special permit before starting construction.

This special permit was different from a standard building permit in that (among other things) it provided the opportunity for neighbors and abutters to weigh in with the Planning Board on your plan. There was a minor dust-up around the first ADU proposed under the original ordinance, wherein the neighbor raised concerns about potential view obstruction and drainage problems on his property on the north end of town4.

How do ADUs work now?

At the beginning of 2020, City Councilors Tim Dolan (P5) and Otis Wheeler (P7) proposed an amendment to the ADU ordinance that would remove the requirement for a special permit. Under this new ordinance, you would only need to go get a standard building permit before starting construction on your ADU.

According to its proponents, the idea behind this amendment (and also the original 2016 ordinance) was to lower the barriers to construction of new housing stock in Greenfield and increase housing density. With its preponderance of older, single-family homes, the city does not have many options for new housing construction, and rent tends to be high.

The motion went through the standard public hearing and comment process, and was subsequently passed into law by the City Council in March, with a fairly substantial majority.

What’s all the fuss and bother?

Following the March passage of the amendment allowing ADUs to be built without a special permit, local activist Al Norman got involved, arguing that removing the special permit requirement would have negative impact on property values and open space in town. The choice quote from Norman comes from a July 9 Recorder article:

“This is just a dodge to allow every lot to have two homes on it — a big one and a small one,” Norman said. “The principal landowner will own the entire single lot, while a second owner just owns the condo/ADU, but no land. This is a huge change in zoning law and is a far cry from the in-law apartments it was sold as. It’s really an opportunity for modular home developers to make some cash.”

Norman then put together a petition that would further amend the ADU ordinance to restore the requirement for the special permit (thereby allowing neighbors to comment on any proposed ADU construction) and add a minimum lot size of 0.75 acres. He gathered enough signatures to get the petition—and therefore this new amendment—back in front of the City Council.

And that brings us up to the current episode…

What’s next?

The new zoning amendment (the one reinstating restrictions on ADUs, in case you’ve lost track) comes before the full City Council for a vote at their regular monthly meeting on Wednesday, November 18.

This new amendment arrives at the Council via the Planning Board (which voted in favor of it) and the Economic Development Committee (which voted against it).

My guess is that Norman & CO. will be out in force for the public comment portion of the meeting, and I imagine that Councilors have been receiving a fair amount of email on the topic.

  1. There is also the question of how potentially damaging it might be to public discourse and civil society to view any of this through the lens of serialized drama, but that is a post for another day.
  2. Scroll way down to section 200-7.18 on page 110…
  3. Often referred to as a “mother-in-law apartment.”
  4. The ADU in question was never built. The abutting neighbor sued the property owner, who then agreed to have the special permit annulled and not build the ADU.