‘We’ve Got to Get Started’—Accessory Dwelling Unit Ordinance Moves Forward After Planning Board Review

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For Maplewood homeowners, the prospect of building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on their properties moved one step closer to reality when the Maplewood Planning Board met August 11 to review a proposed ordinance allowing for ADUs.

“This ordinance has been in the making for a long time,” Mayor Frank McGehee said at the meeting’s start. The ordinance, which was created in collaboration with SOMA: Two Towns for All Ages, would allow for single-family homeowners to build ADUs if either the homeowner or the tenant in the ADU is over the age of 62. The ordinance is intended to address affordable housing for seniors.

“This is a sense of urgency,” said Deputy Mayor Dean Dafis. “Our state budget will be revealed later this month by the governor, and I think our seniors are going to take a major hit again. We’re going to lose people, and we don’t want that. They’ve build this community, they add a lot of value to our community, we wouldn’t be here without them… and we want to find ways to keep them here.”

Dafis added that if the pilot proves the program to be a good affordable housing option, “then in other ways, we will build upon it and expand it. But we’ve got to get started.”

Tasked with evaluating whether or not the proposed ordinance was consistent with the Township’s Master Plan, the Planning Board discussed the memo it would send to the Township Committee regarding the ordinance, after a long and complex discussion (more on that below). Planning Board member Tim Fryatt pointed out a few ways in which the proposed ordinance supports and other ways in which it conflicts with the Master Plan. The Board ultimately agreed that the requirement of a signed affidavit annually was onerous and the intended purpose could be accomplished with a restriction of the certificate of occupancy.

“The Planning Board unanimously agreed that our memo to the Township Committee will note the ways in which the ordinance supports or conflicts with the Master Plan and recommend replacing the affidavit requirement with a restriction of the certificate of occupancy,” confirmed Planning Board Chair Karen Pisciotta in a followup email to Village Green.

Pisciotta noted that the ordinance will not need to return to the Planning Board: “The Township Committee is not required to implement the recommendations of the Planning Board. The Planning Board simply advises the Township Committee on the ordinance.”

Several Board members felt the ordinance was consistent with the Master Plan. “I do not believe there is anything in the master plan that would prohibit what is being proposed,” said Vice Chair Ed Bolden. Liz Ward felt that “exploring it further through a reexamination process would be good,” but was also “very happy to see the township moving towards looking at ADUs…I think we’re in good company by doing this.” Princeton recently adopted a similar ordinance, though without an age requirement.

McGehee felt that the phased approach that has been laid out, which allows for changes to the program and the creation of more affordable housing, is a move “in the right direction.”

Board member Tim Fryatt raised concerns about the “unforeseen consequences” with the prospect of ADUs. “I commend the Township Committee for sending this to the Planning Board. [But] I do think it is a planning issue, because it affects both use and form.” Fryatt mentioned the consistency of single-family homes in Maplewood, and the potential this ordinance had to turn every single-family lot in town into a multi-family lot. “There is also language in the Master Plan about residential conversions,” including discouragement of conversions from single- to multi-family homes.

“I think limiting the amount of people that can reside in the ADU is one way that we ensure we’re not creating a ‘frat house,’” said Dafis, referencing past comments by Township Committee member Vic De Luca, “or creating multi-family [houses]…I don’t think that would be necessarily consistent with ‘single-family house’ or changing, significantly, the character of our suburban community.”

“The Master Plan’s already out of date, as we know, with regard to the percentage of single-family homes. That’s changed a lot over the last 10 years…People are going to focus on the value of the property and of their house,” said Adams to Fryatt’s concerns. “We’re not seeing everyone turning their garage into a rentable space, and that’s sort of one of those unforeseen consequences that we’ve kind of been referring to.” According to Adams, the age restriction is one of the ways the Board can address said consequences.

Mayor McGehee agreed with Adams that the age restriction on this ordinance is key. “The charm of our town is not actually the homes, it’s the people that live in them. And the people that live in them make the character of our community, and they’re actually being priced out.”

Fryatt agreed with the economic and sustainability benefits. However, he mentioned that the ordinance does not preclude renting to a third party. Since senior citizens can live in the ADU or the original residence, Fryatt suggested that not all ADUs would be “granny flats,” as they are sometimes called. “Some of those can alter the physical character of the structure,” he said. “You’re offering the potential to increase property value. And that may attract developer speculation, and the kind of tear-downs that we want to avoid.”

“We want to facilitate a type of architecture that is consistent with our historic neighborhoods and fabric,” Fryatt added, proposing taking the ordinance before the Zoning Board. He mentioned that some ADU ordinances nationwide take stylistic controls, stating that historic houses have to have ADUs which match their houses “to ensure our historic stock preservation.”

Several residents made comments on the plan. Julie Burstein shared that her 87-year-old mother had moved in with her during the pandemic. Over the following months, her family noticed that their two-story house posed a challenge, and the opportunity to build an ADU in a pilot program would make a big difference. “I really hope that this passes, and I’m so grateful to everyone who’s spent so much time thinking through all these questions,” Burstein told the Planning Board.

Dafis thanked Ms. Burstein, saying that “your story is exactly an example of what we are trying to achieve.” Ms. Burstein replied that this ordinance “will mean people like us [herself and her husband] can stay in the town we love.”

Jason Tebbe posed the larger question of affordability in Maplewood and South Orange. “It’s a question of what kind of town we want,” Tebbe stated. “The issue of affordability is really key here.” He referenced similar communities around the nation which have become largely unaffordable. “If I moved here now, I would not be able to afford the house I live in,” Tebbe said, emphasizing the need for allowing residents to “age with dignity” and promoting further options for affordable housing.

He also pointed out that affordable housing is still important alongside the historical preservation of Maplewood homes. “ADUs are one thing,” said Tebbe, “but changing restrictions around town are essential, because we simply don’t have enough housing—that has to be a priority if we want to care about the people that live in this town, and not just the buildings they live in.”

In response to Tebbe’s comments on property vs. people, Trenesa Danuser recommended “bak[ing] a specific time” into the ordinance. “There’s a sense of urgency…that we’ll prioritize the needs of people and not necessarily historic property… but we need to give ourselves a buffer to say it’s been X amount of time, how is this affecting property values?”

Edgar Galvis later brought up the possibility of introducing this ordinance in phases, and reworking it over time to accommodate residents who fall outside of its restrictions. He also brought up the possibility of changing the age requirement, which is currently over 62. “At this point, there’s not a finite answer but we will be looking at the data to make thoughtful decisions,” Galvis stated.

Township Committee member Nancy Adams responded to Galvis that public interest around the ordinance needs to be examined. “We need to use that data to see what’s best for the community, whether that’s through the zoning office or Zoning Board.” She also stated that anyone who wanted to add an ADU to their home and didn’t meet one of the criteria would go for a variance before the Board of Adjustment.

Under the current draft, every application for an ADU would have to come before the Planning Board. 

The Board also discussed the possibility of waiving the required inspection fees. “There should be some safeguards…to make sure we’re going down the right path, but I agree we should give the option to waive fees,” said Danuser.

After the meeting, Dafis followed up with an email stating, “The Planning Board’s moving this pilot forward (subject to their advisory concerns and recommendations) is a huge win for inter generational diversity and inclusion in our community. In the words of Mayor McGehee who offered the most poignant and eloquent defense to concerns about changing the character of historic and charming old housing stock, ‘The charm and attractiveness of our town is due to the people who live here, the community itself, not the homes they live in. Let’s do all we can to keep everyone here while bringing in new neighbors, as well.’ I look forward to working with my committed colleagues in moving this forward, making necessary adjustments, getting this right.” 

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