The City Council partially reverses itself on Accessory Dwelling Units.

Also on the agenda for the November 18 City Council meeting was yet another revisitation of Greenfield’s Accessory Dwelling Unit zoning ordinance.

What’s the issue?

For the full backstory of Accessory Dwelling Units in Greenfield and the ongoing discussion of them around town, check out this post. If you just need the tl;dr1 version, an ADU is an attached or separate, up-to-900-square-foot dwelling2 that you build on your property for a family member, friend, or to rent out. They were first allowed in Greenfield in 2016 and until very recently, required a special permit.

Having voted recently to remove the requirement for a special permit, the Council now had before it a motion to restore the special permit requirement, as well as to set a minimum lot size of 0.75 acres. This motion came to the council via a citizens’ petition submitted by local activist Al Norman.

As Norman stated in his remarks during Public Comment at this meeting, he and the other signers of the petition are concerned that allowing ADUs to be built without a special permit will “pit neighbors against neighbors” and “that you can’t have ADUs without taking away neighbors’ rights.” “It could result in an impact on their neighbors’ resale values,” Norman said. Based on the subsequent discussion of the motion, recent letters to the editor and My Turns in The Recorder, and anecdotal reports around town, it seems like there has been a significant effort to lobby the Council in support of restoring limits on ADU construction.

The proposal came to the full Council with a negative recommendation (2 for, 3 opposed) from the Economic Development Committee.

Who was for it?

The comments and discussion among the Councilors about this motion were a big part of what kept the meeting going until 11:30 PM.

A number of Councilors who had originally voted in favor of removing the special permit requirement now voiced regret. Councilor Philip Elmer (At Large) described himself as having gone through the five stages of grief regarding his prior vote, while Councilor Doug Mayo (P8) said his inbox had been deluged with complaints from residents unhappy about his vote. Councilor Guin, Jarvis, Ricketts, and Desorgher also spoke in favor of restoring the special permit requirement, all of them citing the overwhelming negative response they had received from residents.

However, most of the Councilors supporting the part of this motion restoring the special permit requirement were either ambivalent about or outright opposed to the 0.75 acre minimum lot size.

Who was against it?

Council VP Otis Wheeler (Precinct 7) and Precinct 5 Councilor Tim Dolan pushed back hard against the minimum lot size and the return of special permits for ADUs. Wheeler and Dolan had proposed the original change that allowed ADUs to be built without a special permit (“by right”). Both talked at length about Greenfield’s housing shortage and how removing barriers to ADU construction could help mitigate that problem.

Wheeler and Dolan also expressed skepticism that the support coming in from residents for this proposal was representative of the overall city.

So, what happened?

The longer the discussion went, the more interesting it got.

Councilor Forgey, having expressed concern about why the Planning Board should handle the special permitting (as written in the motion) rather than the Zoning Board of Appeals,3 suggested a friendly amendment to make the switch. However, the City Clerk noted that this switch would constitute “a substantive change” and would require another full cycle of public hearings. That cycle would prevent the Council for meeting the timeline required by the City Charter for dealign with citizen petitions, and Forgey ended up withdrawing her suggested amendment.

Council VP Wheeler, meanwhile, offered an amendment striking the language about the minimum lot size. There was some back and forth with the Clerk as to whether this change would also be substantive, and the answer ended up being that it would not.

The Council also considered sending the whole thing back to the Economic Development Committee to be rewritten and reconsidered. However, VP Wheeler objected to this proposal—citing his disinclination to attend a committee meeting for an amendment—and it was dropped.

Adding to the evening’s drama, Council President Ashli Stempel (At Large) repeatedly reprimanded Al Norman (and possibly others) for typing comments in the Webex chat box, and declined his interjected request to address the Council mid-debate.4

Wheeler’s amendment removing the minimum lot size passed with 8 in favor, one opposed (Guin), and four abstentions (Gilmour, Mayo, Hirschfeld, Forgey). Following that vote, the Council then voted on the amended motion—now only reinstating the special permit requirement for Accessory Dwelling Units. The amended motion passed with one opposed (Dolan) and two abstentions (Wheeler and Mayo).

So, where does that leave us?

Accessory Dwelling Units are still allowed in Greenfield, and now we are back to requiring a special permit for their construction.

It is worth noting that, since the passage in 2016 of the original zoning amending allowing ADUs, there have been exactly three proposals for detached ADUs brought to the Planning Board. Two of those have been built, while the third was withdrawn.

  1. “Too long; didn’t read.”
  2. “Dwelling” basically means it has its own kitchen and bathroom, and its own entrance.
  3. Answer: When the original ADU ordinance was passed in 2016, the ZBA didn’t want to deal with the special permits, so the Planning Board got the job, and it’s been that way ever since.
  4. This topic may end up being the subject of an entire post of its own, but I’ll save that for another day.