An informal group that formed earlier this year to look at housing issues in Thetford has little to report. The group was inspired by a potential opportunity with the North Thetford Church, whose congregration was looking to divest from the structure for the low price of free. A premilinary analysis by engineering firm Pathways Consulting revealed that creating housing in the building would be impractical.
The issue: water. While there is sufficent opportuniy to manage the increased septic requirements of a unit or two, the water source the church currently relies on also feeds around ten other households in the village. Adding a housing unit to the church would exceed the well's capacity, and a new well would have to be drilled far away from the existing well.
The municipal housing committee recently changed its name from the Senior and Affordable Housing Committee to simply the Housing Committee. It also updated its charge to be more broad: "The Thetford Housing Committee plans to focus on promoting housing that supports current residents and people who wish to join our community." Committee members reported in a recent Selectboard meeting that they plan to focus on education.
Meanwhile, the CAT (Community Action in Thetford) group met recently to discuss housing obstacles and opportunities in Thetford, with guests from the Fair Housing Project. Some low-hanging fruit of housing advocacy is updating the Town Plan, which Thetford has already done. The Plan, using data from Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commissions, acknowledges a 200-300 owner-occupied housing shortage in Thetford (pre-pandemic) and recommends certain changes to the Town's zoning bylaws.
One of those changes, which could increase the stock of rental housing in Thetford, centers on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), an independent dwelling connected to a pre-existing single family home. ADUs are an often low-cost altenrative to new construction, although their success – or failure – can depend a lot on local zoning regulations, as well.
Jonah Richard writes in Brick and Mortar, a Bradford, VT-based small-scale development newsletter, that "ADUs have been making a comeback lately, with state governments and municipalities racing to update their zoning laws to be more inclusionary. All in the spirit of easing the housing shortage."
But, Richard cautions, "Far too often, these 'inclusionary' measures place far too many restrictions on ADU construction. And, in the end, homeowners are left with little incentives to actually build one."
In short – and this is for the Thetford Planning Commision – if you're going to allow ADUs, don't make it so hard to build one: "A key reason that ADUs aren't spreading like wildfire, even when affordable-housing concerns are, is that most recent efforts to allow ADUs come with a long list of stipulations whose end result is to make building one into a project that's prohibitively expensive, complicated, and/or risky for all but a few homeowners."
One of those requirements, included in Thetford's current zoning bylaws, is owner-occupancy. Richard explains the flaw succinctly:
What happens when you want to move? Well, you can’t rent your home out since that would violate the zoning bylaws. So you’re forced to sell. At which point you’ve limited your buyers to those that want to commit to living there.
Additionally... owner-occupancy requirements effectively prohibit developers from building an ADU on an investment property. Even if they intend to sell it to a homeowner afterwards. This puts unnecessary burden on the average homeowner to become a de facto developer, rather than open up that possibility to the marketplace.
None of this is to say the local Planning Commission is opposed to ADUs – they're in Thetford's existing zoning bylaws already, and the Commission has discussed ways to support housing in Thetford. But the Commission is in the process of updating the Town's bylaws to be compliant with the newly adopted Town Plan, and there could be an opportuniy here.
Thetford's current bylaws state, "The purpose for Accessory Dwelling Units is to allow an owner of a single-family dwelling to create a subordinate dwelling unit within, attached to or near the primary dwelling." But Section 5.10 C. 6. of Thetford's bylaws state, in part, that, "The single-family dwelling or the accessory dwelling unit must be occupied by the owner of the property."
As Richard writes, "So—if you’re in an area considering changes to ADU bylaws—please (please, please) make sure any proposed zoning updates don’t have unintended consequences."