Lebanon considers lifting residency rule for accessory dwellings


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 10-09-2023 7:21 PM

LEBANON — As part of an effort to encourage more housing, city councilors are considering removing a long-standing restriction that requires properties with an accessory-dwelling unit to be owner-occupied.

In January, the City Council will be presented with a number of amendments to the city zoning ordinance proposed by planning staff. The recommended changes include waiving impact fees on residential additions 500 square feet or less and amending the Riverbank Protection District to allow additional downtown development on the Mascoma River.

City planning staff also proposed increasing the size and proportional allowances for accessory-dwelling units. ADUs, as they are known, are a separate or independent living space on a residential property, such as a basement apartment or a converted garage.

The proposed changes include increasing the permitted size maximum of ADUs from 750 square feet to 960 square feet, or greater if the parcel of land is at least 4 acres.

City councilors at a meeting last week said in addition to the staff proposals, they also want to hear public feedback about an idea not on the city staff’s proposed list of changes: eliminating a requirement that owners reside on a property containing an ADU, either in the main home or the accessory dwelling.

“As far as I can tell (this requirement) only applies to ADUs but not to, for instance, duplexes, apartments or any other type of dwelling that we have,” Councilor Devin Wilkie said.

According to councilors, some residents find the owner-occupancy requirement a hindrance. The owners cannot move off the property and prospective buyers may not want to acquire a second dwelling that carries deed restrictions.

Planning Director Nathan Reichert, speaking at the meeting, said the city often advises residents to consider converting a single-family home to a “two-family dwelling” rather than build an ADU, in part because multifamily dwellings do not have an owner-occupancy requirement.

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Currently, the owner-occupancy requirement may be lifted in residential districts where multifamily dwellings are permitted, Reichert said.

But in other parts of the city, Reichert said, the only way to remove the occupancy requirement on a home with an ADU is to stop living in or renting out the accessory dwelling.

Wilkie said that singling out one type of multifamily residence to carry this restriction felt inequitable and “discriminatory.”

“It was brought up to me (that) when residency requirements of this sort were added to zoning ordinances across the county, they were discriminatory against low-income people,” Wilkie said. “The assumption was that if a property owner was on the premises that the property was going to be better maintained.”

But some councilors worried that eliminating this restriction would incentivize homeowners to turn residential homes into rental properties, where both the main home and the accessory dwelling are rented out.

Councilor Doug Whittlesey noted that the council’s main goal for ADUs was to help homeowners, not to encourage for-profit ventures.

“The point of the ADU work we’ve been doing is not just to increase housing stock,” Whittlesey said. “It was also a way to make aging in your home or staying in your home affordable.”

Councilor Erling Heistad said he was reluctant to see more single-family homes in Lebanon converted into multifamily apartments.

“I’ve watched those houses go downhill dramatically since they became multifamily, and it doesn’t really help the families who are in it ... because they aren’t being well-maintained,” Heistad said.

Councilors said they would like to hold a public hearing in the future to hear feedback from the community about the idea of eliminating the occupancy requirement for ADUs. The council did not set a date for a hearing but indicated they would continue the discussion at a future meeting.

In a separate proposal, city planning staff are recommending defining how long the owner of an ADU may be absent from the property.

A provision in the current ordinance permits the owner of an ADU to take a “temporary leave of absence” from the property, “provided that the owner-occupied unit is not rented or occupied by anyone other than the property owner during the temporary leave.”

Reichert told councilors last week that the ordinance does not define the allowable length of that absence.

“We have run into issues where (the property owners) have moved or are living in other areas, cities or towns,” Reichert said. “They’ve left but are still renting the old house (or accessory dwelling).”

Reichert said the ordinance needs a date in order for the city to enforce the restriction.

City councilors recommended allowing the owners a temporary leave of up to 12 months to accommodate residents who take an extended trip or reside part of the year at a second home.

Reichert said in a phone interview that planning staff will be presenting their zoning proposals to other city boards — including the Planning Board, Zoning Board, Conservation Commission and Heritage Commission — before bringing their final recommendations to the City Council at the beginning of January. The council will hold a public hearing for all the proposed zoning changes prior to voting whether to adopt them.

Reichert said that the discussion of eliminating the occupancy requirement for ADU ownership will be held separate from the city staff’s zoning proposals.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.