Are Two-Family Homes on the Horizon? Planning Board Seeks Ideas from Other Town Boards

A summit meeting of town boards that advocate for and administer housing policies is expected to address a recommendation that calls for relaxing local regulations limiting the construction of two-family houses.

Members of the Planning Board exchanged ideas on the topic at a recent virtual meeting and concluded that an expanded roster of players would help evaluate the idea.

Amy Lloyd said the joint meeting should include the Bedford Housing Partnership and the Municipal Affordable Housing Trust. Her colleague Jacinda Barbehenn concurred: “Let’s hear all the voices we can and not make assumptions,” Todd Crowley of the Zoning Board of Appeals added that his board should also participate.

Lee Vorderer, a member of the Community Preservation Committee and a longtime advocate of access for persons with disabilities, suggested hosting “a charrette that would invite anybody to come and begin to collect some ideas and see if anything emerges, a genesis from the general folk.” Board Chair Shawn Hanegan commented, “I would encourage an open forum like that.”

The source of the conversation is a provision in the 2019 town housing study that recommended relaxing the restrictions. Catherine Perry, assistant planning director, said that except for certain houses built before World War II, only about five lots are eligible for two-family buildings under the bylaw.

Yet it’s still “a very suburban housing type” with the capacity to help “increase the ‘missing middle’ category,” she said.

Some board members favor a zoning change that would open the entire town to two-family dwellings. Barbehenn supports it “by right, with some controls.” She said this is one of “a multitude of opportunities and alternatives,” which “could result in “a variety in population base that makes for a better community.”

Hanegan commented, “I would like to see it pursued townwide.” He said two-family dwellings should not give the impression of “substandard housing suitable only for smaller lots. We want to give people more options to do with their house rather than tear it down.” Hanegan said he would like to receive input from “the real-estate community” on this idea.

“We want to enable the creation of moderate-income two-family houses that look effectively like a regular house in the neighborhood. What can we do to the bylaw to make it like that?” he continued, adding that public hearings will help measure sentiment.

Planning Director Tony Fields, however, commented, “I’m not sure the majority of residents are ready for that.” He cited the often-used words “neighborhood character,” and envisioned a scenario in which large houses could double in size. “We need to figure out how to control the size of what gets built so we attract ‘missing middle’ housing rather than cater to those who can afford very expensive housing.”

Board member Chris Gittins also envisioned larger houses, suggesting that “future owners may want the opportunity to convert those to two-family. We should modify rules to enable that.”

Historically, he continued, some two-family houses were built from scratch, and others were created by dividing larger buildings. “Look at what has worked for generating middle-income affordable housing and keep going with that.”

Gittins’s colleague on the board, Steven Hagan, observed that a 4,000-square-foot house could conceivably accommodate three units with a common entrance. Current rules require separate entrances, which reflects a great exterior change on the neighborhood. Hagan agreed that a townwide change would not likely be approved. He said that geographically, “We could start in the Center and work from there.”

“The world changes over time. Everything needs to be either torn down or reused,” said Lloyd.
“I have long wanted to change the two-family bylaw. “We are looking at expanding housing opportunities for the middle but I don’t think this will do that in larger house neighborhoods.”

Lloyd said in residential zones with a history of two-family dwellings – albeit on smaller lots – “this could help us start the process and get people comfortable with it.”

Some in the housing orbit are wary of words like “character” and “atmosphere,” which have been interpreted as code language for exclusive housing. Resident Elena Zorn commented that her definition of “character” is how people behave with each other.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763


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