By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
CONCORD — In an effort to enrich the housing stock throughout the state, the Legislature has enacted and the governor has signed a law requiring municipalities to permit owners of single-family homes to add at least one "accessory dwelling unit."
The statute is intended to address several mismatches between demand and supply in the housing market, which were identified by a study undertaken by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies for the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. The study found a shortage of affordable housing, which accessory units can address without the need to construct more infrastructure or develop more land. With the aging of the population, demand has grown for housing for elderly parents and in-laws who do not wish to care for large homes or move to nursing homes. Younger individuals and couples, many saddled with student loan debt, are deferring both homeownership and child rearing while seeking housing in an extremely tight rental market.
"There is a significant mismatch," said Ben Frost of New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, "as the rate of household formation is slowing and the size of households is shrinking while the there are many large homes in the housing inventory." He said that the situation is especially prevalent in the northeast and particularly in northern New England, with its smaller families and aging population.
Russ Thibeault of Applied Economic Research of Laconia, pointed out that municipalities adopted zoning ordinances in the 1980s and 1990s when the population was growing at a fast pace. Consequently, ordinances were designed to manage the pace and pattern of growth. "Since 2010," he said, "the population has grown one percent. Change, the aging demographic, is more important than growth,"
Roy Sanborn of Four Seasons Sotheby's International Realty of Meredith said "there is a steady demand for homes with an accessory or in-law apartment, either for aging parents or a caregiver."
The statute enables municipalities to require the property owner to occupy one of the units, which he may be required to designate as his or her primary residence. But, municipalities cannot limit the occupants of accessory units to family members of the property owner. Nor can they limit an accessory unit to a single bedroom. However, they can set minimum and maximum sizes for accessory units so long as they are at least 750 square feet. Likewise, municipalities may apply aesthetic criteria to preserve the appearance of the single-family dwelling and require adequate parking to serve the accessory unit. The statute also enables, but does not require, municipalities to permit detached accessory units, which must comply with municipal zoning ordinances.
Laconia adopted an ordinance permitting accessory units in 1997. It stipulates that no more than one accessory unit can be on a single lot, as well as that an accessory unit cannot exceed 400 square feet and must be within or attached to an existing building. As for the appearance of the property, the ordinance prescribes only that it "must be maintained."
In Laconia accessory units are confined to four zoning districts — Rural Residential 1, Rural Residential 2, Residential Single Family and Downtown Riverfront. Single-family homes are permitted in these four districts as well as in Shorefront Residential, Residential General, Residential Apartment, Professional, Commercial Resort, Business Central, Commercial and Business Central Industrial Districts.
Since the city has incorporated accessory units into its zoning ordinance, the law allows it to permit them by right, conditional use permit or special exception "in all zoning districts that permit single family dwellings."
By contrast, the ordinance adopted in Dover applies to all single-family homes and specifies that accessory units can range from 300 to 800 square feet, but not exceed 30 percent of the floor space of the single-family unit. At the same time, any exterior alterations or extensions must maintain the appearance of a single-family home and the entrance to the accessory unit must be on the side or at the rear of the building if at all possible. Each accessory unit must have one off-street parking space. Dover also requires property owners to enter a restrictive covenant that the accessory unit will not be converted to condominium.
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