Accessory dwelling units, aka ADUs in today’s parlance, have drawn attention in the news lately. In fact, they have been around for a long time, but under their new ADU label they have shed the image of the old “mother-in-law apartment” or “granny flat” to become the latest approach to easing Vermont’s housing shortage, including workforce housing.
In Vermont, and nationally, there have been demographic shifts. The divorce rate, which had been creeping upward, rose dramatically in the 1970s. The marriage rate is declining steadily and people wait longer before marrying. The number of people living alone has increased. In the 1970s about 20% of households consisted of a single person. Now it is over 30% of households and expanding faster than any other type of household. As a result, there is increased demand for modest housing units that are affordable with a single income. Young workers are leaving Vermont in droves because they cannot find such housing. ADUs seem to fill that gap, with the further benefit that they add housing where housing already exists and do not cause development sprawl.
Indeed, there was an uptick of interest in adding ADUs among Thetford homeowners following passage of Act 179 by the Vermont legislature in October of 2020. This Act stated that “no bylaw shall have the effect of excluding as a permitted use one accessory dwelling unit that is located within or appurtenant to an owner-occupied single-family dwelling on an owner-occupied lot … provided there is compliance with all the following:
(i) The property has sufficient wastewater capacity.
(ii) The unit does not exceed 30 percent of the total habitable floor area of the single-family dwelling or 900 square feet, whichever is greater.”
However, the enthusiasm of some was dampened when it came to making the application for construction and facing the zoning requirements. Yes, Thetford’s zoning regulations already allowed ADUs, but certain compliance criteria and building standards seemed overly restrictive, and everything had to be approved through a hearing with the Development Review Board (DRB.)
Act 179 nullified Thetford’s requirement that an ADU could not exceed 500 square feet of floor space or 30% of the area of the primary dwelling, whichever was bigger. However, approval still involved both the Zoning Administrator and the DRB. An ADU was only allowed if it was attached to a main building that was owner-occupied and a family dwelling. A stand-alone, detached ADU was only allowable as a conditional use, which meant making an application for a conditional use permit and a hearing before the DRB during which any number of conditions might be added. Furthermore. a detached ADU could not be located more than 200 feet from the main dwelling unless it were contained in an existing outbuilding that had been in place before January 1, 2011.
To further encumber things, the property owner had to live either in the main building or in the ADU. If the owner moved away, for instance due to a change of job, they could rent out their former living space for “a period of up to one year.” What would happen after that was not explained.
Thankfully the Fiscal Year 2022 Appropriations Act 74 – “an act relating to making appropriations for the support of government” – included an extra $500,000 for housing bylaw modernization, specifically to encourage municipal bylaw amendments that would ease the housing shortage. The Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission has been assisting Thetford to improve things like the ADU regulations under a grant supported by the bylaw modernization funding.
An interim bylaw that removes many of the obstacles in the ADU application process was recently adopted by the Town. The regulations now simply state that the Zoning Administrator may approve an ADU attached to or detached from a single-family dwelling. An ADU may also be added to a business like a shop. No maximal distance, conditional use, or DRB hearing is required. The ADU may be as large as 900 square feet or 30% of the area of the primary dwelling, whichever is bigger. Sensible things that apply to all housing, like a sufficient septic system and some parking, still hold.
Hopefully this “modernized” bylaw will re-invigorate the interest in Thetford ADUs. Its interim bylaw status means that it was adopted via a streamlined process with one hearing before the selectboard. An interim bylaw has a life of two years, after which it may be made permanent or be withdrawn. In the latter scenario, anything approved under the interim law is “grandfathered” and still legal. The demand for affordable housing is unlikely to abate anytime soon, so the odds are high that this bylaw will become permanent.