Planning Board tackles accessory apartments

Mon, 01/03/2022 - 6:30am

The Planning Board discussed accessory apartments at its December meeting, with an eye toward proposing some changes to section 513 of the zoning ordinance governing year-round rental apartments. Section 513 was originally created to address the lack of year-round rentals for the island’s workforce. Unlike accessory residential structures, 513 accessory apartments are allowed to have a kitchen, but they must be rented to a year- round island resident. 513s cannot be used for weekly summer rentals, and the owner must
have the current lease on file with the town, as well as agree to an inspection.
The Housing Board had requested a review by the Planning Board to address some issues with the language of the ordinance. Specifically, the Housing Board was concerned that the ordinance called for the Housing Board to play a role in regulating 513 accessory apartments, if the apartments were also listed as “affordable housing.” The Housing Board asked the Planning Board to remove it from this regulatory role.

Member Chris Willi asked for the definition of affordable housing, and confessed that he had assumed all 513s were affordable. Town Planner Allison Ring explained that per state guidelines, an affordable housing unit is one that receives a subsidy (either state or local), and has restrictions to assure the unit will remain affordable for 30 years. Additionally, the renter or buyer must qualify under the state’s guidelines, meeting income requirements based on the median income of the community. The Housing Board works to
create affordable housing for individuals that meet the income guidelines.

513 accessory apartments do not necessarily qualify as affordable, however. In fact, Ring told the Planning Board at its meeting on December 8 that none of the 513 accessory apartments on Block Island are counted as affordable. Under the current ordinance, there is a tax reduction available for homeowners if their 513 apartment is affordable under the guidelines. Ring told the board that the tax assessor’s office had confirmed that no one had received the tax break.

Member Gail Ballard Hall suggested that perhaps people were unaware of the provision. Land Use Officer Jenn Brady told the group that homeowners had to jump through several hoops to qualify for the tax break.
Ring told the group that a suggestion was made to look at the size restrictions on 513 apartments as well. Currently, the apartments are limited to 1,200 square feet and two bedrooms, and Ring asked if the group was interested in increasing the allowed sizes.

Hall mentioned two recent individuals she had spoken with whose accessory buildings could not qualify as 513s because one had too many bedrooms and the other’s square footage was too high. Hall questioned why the sizes of 513s couldn’t match what is allowed by zoning. “Right now, [people] can build an accessory structure, but they can’t rent it out year-round [as a 513]. It is restricting the ability to have attainable housing,” Hall said.

Member Christine Grele asked if the board wanted to encourage bigger accessory buildings. Hall and Willi pointed out that people are already building accessory structures bigger than the dimensions allowed for 513s. Hall said, “There’s too much criteria attached,” which she said keeps people from developing their property into a 513.
Willi agreed that he would “rather see more 513s,” given the “housing crisis” on Block Island. He said he wants to encourage year-round housing.
Chair Margie Comings said she could consider the potential bigger sizes being tied to a special use permit on existing buildings, but she wouldn’t want to have the larger sizes for 513s on new construction. She said there had to be “some limits,” in order to protect
the neighboring properties.

Kristin Baumann spoke from the audience, suggesting that 513 accessory apartments be “ownable” as its own structure. Under the current ordinance, the 513 accessory apartment cannot be deeded separately from the property. As such, a new owner of a property may or may not keep the apartment intact. Under the ordinance, if an owner abandons the use of the 513 as a year-round rental, the kitchen must be removed, thereby returning the structure to being simply an accessory building, rather than an accessory apartment.

Hall had pointed out that without the ability to turn an accessory building into a 513 apartment, some homeowners elected to use the accessory building as extra bedrooms for weekly rentals in the summer.
Baumann stated that ownership would provide another way for “more people to have year-round housing.” She said it would have to be deed-restricted, in order to ensure it remained a 513.
Willi said he liked the concept but didn’t want to “lose the rentals.”

Brady suggested looking at another section of the ordinance, section 405, which deals with ownership. Comings agreed that perhaps the idea of ownership of an accessory apartment could be addressed in another section of the ordinance, saying the idea was
“intriguing” and should be looked at in the beginning of 2022.