The following was distributed earlier today as my weekly Substack newsletter on Lowell politics. If you’d like to receive this weekly update by email in the future, sign up here.
Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting was dominated by the debate over Accessory Dwelling Units. That was the only substantive matter taken up at the meeting and even though nearly the entire meeting was devoted to it, the issue was not resolved but was continued to August 8, 2023, at the next scheduled Council meeting. Not only will the ADU debate resume that evening, but the Council will then take up the portions of last Tuesday’s agenda which were not reached, essentially the entire agenda.
The meeting began with the Council honoring a local youth baseball team, then the minutes of the July 11, 2023, meeting were accepted, and then another public hearing on the schedule, this for the abandonment of a portion of Pratt Ave, was called out of order but it was just a formality and ended within two minutes.
As measured by the LTC recording of the meeting, the public hearing on ADUs was opened by Mayor Sokhary Chau 43 minutes into the meeting. A great number of individuals then spoke for or against the proposed ordinance. At 2 hours, 8 minutes into the meeting with no other member of the public wishing to speak, Mayor Chau closed the public participation portion of the hearing.
Each of the Councilors then spoke. Here’s some of what they said:
Rita Mercier, citing the Planning Board’s recommendation against the ordinance, said she would not support it.
John Drinkwater identifying himself as one of the original sponsors of this motion, said its primary objective was to address housing availability and affordability which are both major areas of concern for the city. He then pointed to the minutes of the first subcommittee meetings on this motion which happened before there was even an ordinance proposed, and pointed out that many of the residents who spoke against the ordinance this evening and said they were not against the concept of ADUs but just against this version, a year ago had spoken out against ADUs entirely. Drinkwater also defended the city’s Department of Planning and Development against criticisms that this is not a good ordinance. Drinkwater emphatically stated it was a well-drafted ordinance. He closed by saying that we’re subsidizing affordable housing with ARPA money and Community Preservation funds, and later in this very agenda the Council will be addressing affordable housing in the context of the MBTA Communities Act zoning requirements. He cited all of these as evidence of the need for more housing that is affordable and ADUs potentially are part of the solution.
Corey Robinson raised the issue of the Council’s ability to pass a version of this ordinance that excluded ADUs from the zoning variance process. He would like this in the ordinance but has yet to get a clear answer on whether it would be legal for the Council to do that. He asked the city solicitor, but the answer was complicated and not a simple yes or no. Robinson then said he thinks the ordinance should require one off street parking space per bedroom, and also expressed concern that the ability to convert an existing detached garage into an ADU would eliminate existing off street parking spaces and thereby add to the parking problems facing many neighborhoods. He closed by saying that while he was a co-sponsor of the initial ADU motion, he feels that this proposal is trying to put “a square peg in a round hole” and he would not support it.
Erik Gitschier criticized the process and complained that it was being rushed through without the need for such urgency.
Kim Scott said that as she walks through her district, a constant refrain from residents is concerns about parking driven by too much density, insufficient places for people to park, and the city’s inability to consistently enforce existing parking and zoning rules. She said an ADU ordinance should require a minimum of one off street parking space per bedroom and should require minimum lot sizes.
Vesna Nuon said he supports the ordinance but that he heard the concerns of those who spoke against it and offered four amendments that would address some of the issues raised. The amendments were:
- Require a special permit for any detached structure that was to become an ADU.
- Cap the number of ADUs per City Council District at five per year.
- Limit the number of bedrooms in an ADU to two.
- Prohibit ADUs being used as “short term rentals” and have DPD define short term rental for purposes of this ordinance.
Dan Rourke said that many who spoke against the proposed ordinance expressly stated they did not oppose ADUs overall but just had concerns. Rourke said he felt Nuon’s proposed amendments would address many of those concerns. He said he supports ADUs as a concept, especially as a means of keeping families intact.
Paul Yem said he would support the ordinance and the amendments. He said people in his district are poor and many are immigrants. This ordinance will provide a greater opportunity for families to stay together. He said the current law (on in-law apartments) requires Board approval, and his constituents can’t afford to hire a lawyer to navigate the hearing process so in reality, they don’t have access to the in-law apartment option, nor would they with an ADU statute that required Board approval.
John Leahy said he liked the amendments. The city needs this because it will help with affordability.
Corey Robinson moved for a further amendment that the ADU ordinance (if passed) would have a one year “sunset clause” (by which I believe is meant it would terminate in a year unless the Council at that time extended it). Robinson also asked for a roll call on the amendment. (I believe his one-year sunset suggestion was overcome by events and never voted on).
Erik Gitschier asked if the “five ADUs per Council district” amendment was legal. The City Solicitor replied, “that might be a problem” and explained that zoning must affect everyone in the district the same way and limiting it to five would not do that. Gitschier then criticized the direction of the meeting, saying, “You can’t just throw out amendments like this” with an ordinance as important and far-reaching as this one. He also criticized the ambiguity of the “have DPD define short term rental” amendment.
Kim Scott and Rita Mercier both criticized the process of making amendments from the floor of the Council.
John Drinkwater asked if the ordinance if amended would then come back to the Council for further review at a future time. The City Clerk said No that the Council would first vote for the amendments and, if they passed, would then vote on the ordinance as amended. If that passed, that would be the final ordinance that would take effect.
Mayor Chau then spoke briefly and indicated his support for the ordinance and the amendments. He then asked the Clerk for a roll call on the amendments.
Voting YES on the Nuon amendments were Drinkwater, Jenness, Leahy, Nuon, Rourke, Yem, and Chau.
Voting NO on the Nuon amendments were Gitschier, Mercier, Robinson, and Scott; so the amendments passed.
Corey Robinson then asked for an immediate roll call vote on the ordinance as amended, but Mayor Chau ruled that other Councilors had been waiting to speak so he called on them.
John Drinkwater said that the ordinance now required a special permit before a detached structure could be made into an ADU. He said that was a big change that should address many of the concerns about the ordinance. He said he also believed that the City Zoning Code already defined Short Term Rental as 28 days or fewer and that would be incorporated into this ordinance. (However, the DPD Director, when asked about this, simply said all short term rentals are considered illegal in Lowell under current zoning, but I’m not sure if the 28 days is already part of the zoning code).
Kim Scott said that because the concerns about parking and setbacks were still not addressed, she would still vote NO on the ordinance.
Corey Robinson then withdrew his motion to take an immediate roll call on the ordinance.
Kim Scott said she had several amendments to propose. The first would require that there be at least one off street parking space for each bedroom in the ADU. This amendment passed with nine Councilors voting YES and just Gitschier and Jenness voting NO.
Scott then moved to require any ADU with two bedrooms to undergo site plan review by the Planning Board. John Drinkwater spoke up, saying the intent of the ADU ordinance was to make it easier for people to create an ADU, but this amendment would require an applicant to hire a lawyer to appear before the Board which would defeat the “make it easier” objective, so he would oppose this amendment. This amendment failed with four voting for it (Gitschier, Mercier, Robinson, and Scott) and the other seven voting against it.
Scott then proposed as her third amendment that an ADU could not be constructed on a “non-conforming lot.” When questioned on what effect this would have, a DPD representative said the vast majority of existing lots under the city’s current zoning code are nonconforming, so this amendment would exclude the majority of single family lots in the city from ADU eligibility. (Scott remarked that she understood that to be the case and that was the hoped-for consequence of her amendment). The DPD representative added that DPD hoped to address the inconsistency between existing lot sizes and the zoning code in the near future and then added that even though owners of single family lots that did not meet the minimum area requirements of the zoning code would be eligible for an ADU, they would still have to comply with all other zoning requirements such as set back and dimensions.
This amendment failed by the same four YES, seven NO, result as the prior roll call.
By this point, 10pm had arrived. Since Council rules require the meeting to end at that time, Mayor Chau entertained a motion to waive that rule, however, if two Councilors oppose such a motion, it fails. On the roll call, Councilors Gitschier, Mercier, and Nuon all voted not to go beyond 10pm. At that point, the Clerk halted the roll call because the motion had already failed.
The Clerk and the Mayor then said that the ADU Public Hearing would be continued to the Council’s August 8, 2023, meeting. Also that night, the rest of the meeting agenda would be taken up. After that, the new agenda for that evening would be reached.
A reminder that next Saturday, August 5, 2023, at 10am, I’ll lead a Lowell Walk on “The North Common and the Acre.” This free, 90-minute walk will begin at the Murkland Elementary School at 350 Adams Street in Lowell.
Today on richardhowe.com, I wrote a Lowell History post about Charles H. Allen who was the first U.S. Governor of Puerto Rico, and his role in the Spanish-American War and its consequences.