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Town Meeting: Much Ado About ADUs

April 6, 2023
• Town Meeting members will need to decide how far back ADUs will need to be placed on a resident’s property at the upcoming Annual Town Meeting in May.

reported by Yuxiao Yuan

On March 7th, the Needham Town Planning Board held a public hearing regarding an amendment proposing broader requirements for Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, in single family zones. While residents generally supported allowing such units to be rented out and to allow detached ADUs to be built, there is a divided sentiment regarding how close such standalone units should be to neighboring properties.

Under the proposed amendment, standalone ADUs are allowed to be as close as five feet from the side and the rear lot line. In alignment with setback requirements for other accessory structures, such as a garage. However, for units higher than 15 feet, which will become two-story buildings, the bylaw requires a setback of 12 or 14 feet. Current zoning regulations also require a 10 foot distance between any two structures on the same lot.

However, the Planning Board was also considering applying the increased setback requirement of 12 or 14 feet to all ADUs, and intended to determine the final proposed requirement based on public feedback. Attendees in favor of the five foot setback said it will be nearly impossible for homeowners with smaller lots to build an accessory unit with the 12 or 14 foot setback requirement.

“Those older homes [which] are also occupied largely by older people, those are on smaller lots.” argued Select Board member Heidi Frail. “They have existing nonconforming buildings, and they do not have the room in their backyards to to plant a large ADU. So in disallowing an existing non-conforming building, we are disallowing the opportunity for an ADU and perhaps some extra income for that very specific group–where this whole conversation started.”

There were also concerns about the negative impact the lesser setback requirement would have on neighbors. This was despite the acknowledgement that a special permitting process would be required for a detached ADU, where neighbors can discuss potential mitigations.

“An apartment is a whole other family unit coming in,” challenged hearing attendee Maggie Abruzese. “Taking out their garbage, having parties, having cars. There’s a whole lot of in and out and things that happen in a living unit that don’t happen when you use something recreationally. Even if you’re using it as a room, it’s not the same. The neighbors may be friends today, but people move. People change.”

The Planning Board ended up approving language for the Town Meeting warrant which included the five foot setback requirement at their following meeting on March 17th with a split vote. Planning Board member Natasha Espada explained her vote, stating,”If we don’t do this, you’re basically castigating the people that don’t have a larger lot.”

Chair Adam Block agreed. “Well said. What’s the point of trying to create, of trying to diversify our housing stock? Why are we just saying we support affordable housing, giving lip service to it, but denying the actual ability to do it?”

Members opposed to the five-foot setback were concerned in the would have unexpected consequences, especially because those units could be used for rentals.

Said member, Paul Alpert. “I still have a problem with having three college students who might be partying until two, three o’clock in the morning being five feet from the property line in a Single Residence B unit.”

The next step is for Towm Meeting to approve this zoning amendment, for it to become law. Some members said it should be up to the legislative body to decide if the setback requirement needs to be further restricted. But Planning Board member Artie Crocker said he was not comfortable passing along the amendment to Town Meeting without due scrutiny. “We are not supposed to be sending anything the Town Meeting, which is a fundamental change the whole town without actually fully vetting it when we put it out to the public,” he argued. “A lot of people don’t necessarily know what’s going on because a lot of times they only hear the positive things. We’re expanding it so more people can live within the household, and that’s what they’re hearing a lot of times. They’re not hearing the other aspect of it.”

If you are interested in the fully detailed insights from both sides, you check out the March 7th and March 17th Planning Board meetings on needhamchannel.org.

ADUs are just one of the ways Needham is trying to increase the diversity of housing stock in Needham. Click here to watch Yuxiao’s overview of the Needham Housing Plan and initiatives.


This story ran as part of the Needham Channel News, a weekly newscast airing on The Needham Channel every Thursday at 7:30pm. The Needham Channel News can be found on the Community Channel: Comcast 9, Astound 15 and Verizon 29. Most Thursdays it also can be viewed on our HD Channel on Verizon 2129, Astound 613 and streaming on this site.