Zoning Amendments Seek To Spur Housing Creation

by Ryan Bray

ORLEANS – A slate of proposed zoning amendments will go before voters at May’s annual town meeting with the hope of making the creation of housing in town easier.

The planning board will hold a public hearing on the proposed seven amendments at 4 p.m. on Feb. 13 in the Nauset Room at town hall.

Orleans and the rest of the Cape are wrestling with an ongoing housing crisis in which attainable year-round housing remains out of reach for many of the area’s working professionals, young families and seniors. But there’s no one solution to the problem, and the amendments are designed to tackle housing in a number of different ways.

“So we’re thinking big picture about where the town’s going, what are the town’s needs,” George Meservey, the town’s director of planning and community development, said in an interview in January. “There’s no doubt that the townspeople are fully engaged that we have a housing imbalance in the community, and that’s the most polite way of putting it.”

A housing needs assessment presented to the select board in November calls for the creation of 350 new units of housing over the next 10 years, with 150 of those new units to be deed restricted as affordable. By comparison, the town’s last needs assessment from 2017 called for the creation of 100 new units by 2027. Meanwhile, the town’s existing local comprehensive plan, which was adopted in 2006, called for the creation of just 35 new units by 2026.

The proposed zoning changes include instituting a minimum 30-day rental period for multifamily apartments, removing the minimum lot size for one- and two-family dwellings in the business district and accessory dwelling units across town, allowing commercial buildings to house up to four residential units by right and a provision that would allow hotels and motels to convert to residential housing with a special permit.

Alice Thomason Van Oot, who chairs the planning board, said her group took a hard look at the existing bylaw to see what improvements would make the creation of housing more feasible.

“What we’ve been doing with George’s help is looking at what’s getting in the way that’s in our bailiwick,” she said.

One amendment if adopted would require that all multifamily apartments in town that are rented out be rented for a minimum of 30 days. The amendment is designed to help nudge the town’s long-term housing efforts forward, but Meservey noted that the proposed change would only apply to multifamily apartments in Orleans.

“It doesn’t affect people’s ability to rent their house on a short term basis,” he said.

Another change would allow new apartment projects to house between three and six new units by right without approval from the town’s zoning board of appeals.

“So you don’t have to get a special permit anymore,” Meservey said. “That saves the developer from a discretionary permit. It allows them to line up their financing ahead of time. It’s much easier.”

The planning board is also aiming to make it easier, and more appealing, for property owners to create accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. These are secondary structures to a primary residence or building that can be rented as housing, such as a unit over a garage or an attached apartment.

The board is proposing an amendment to increase the maximum ADU square footage from 800 to 1,200 square feet. The amendment also would eliminate any restrictions regarding minimum lot size for the accessory units.

Meservey said the change could motivate more people to create ADUs, noting that the planning department currently only gets between two and five requests a year to build them, on average.

“If we take out that minimum lot size for accessories, anyone who has a single family home on their lot, if they have a connection to sewer, they can get a permit to put an accessory unit on it. So I think this makes a lot of sense.”

Another proposed amendment would allow up to four residential units in a commercial building by right with conditions. Those include that there be a minimum commercial use in the building, and that the commercial operation front the street. The units can either be in the same building as the commercial business or in a standalone structure on the same lot.

Meservey and Van Oot say there’s been more demand for these mixed building uses, especially as businesses look for ways to try and create housing for their seasonal and year-round employees. The growing need for employee housing locally is changing the Cape’s perception as a seasonal region, Van Oot said.

“Now we’ve expanded in terms of how much workforce is needed, and for how long,” she said. “It’s close to 12 months, realistically 9 to 10 months.”

The board is also proposing a zoning change to allow existing hotels and motels to convert to residential housing with a special permit from the zoning board. The change would allow one-to-one room to unit conversions, as well as a hotel/motel’s existing footprint to be expanded by up to 15 percent.

Meservey said the change is more in step with what people today are looking for when they vacation on the Cape.

“It seems that the vacation model is not a hotel anymore,” he said. “People want a house for a while.”

Other amendments seek to reduce parking by allowing just one parking space per unit in town, and to remove the minimum lot size for one- and two-family dwellings built before January 2023 in the business district.

Zoning in Orleans dates back to the creation of the Orleans Protective Bylaw in 1949, Meservey said. That bylaw was intended to manage growth, he said. But the opposite problem exists today as the town’s housing needs continue to grow.

Van Oot called the bylaw “a living document,” and countless amendments such as those being proposed for May have been made over the years to help it keep pace with the town’s changing needs.

“You sort of check your position,” she said. “What you don’t want to do is admire the problem for too long. So we try to keep up.”

The select board in December entertained talk of potentially rewriting the bylaw from the ground up. Select Board member Mark Mathison noted that the bylaw wasn’t written to accommodate things such as sewering or the rapidly changing housing market.

Meservey said if the town wants to go that way, the work involved to fully restructure the bylaw would be considerable.

“It may be time for a wholesale change, but we’re going to need a lot of input from a lot of people on that,” he said.

For now, planning officials are focusing on the weeks and months ahead as they prepare to make their case for the changes at town meeting.

“All zoning requires a two-thirds majority [vote] at town meeting, so you need to make sure that what you’re doing makes abundant sense,” Meservey said.