Newport This Week

Rental Units Workshop Considered by Middletown

The Middletown Planning Board has called for a public workshop to take the pulse of other officials and residents on what the town should do about accessory dwelling units, which are defined as structures on the same property as a single-family home, such as apartments over a garage or in a basement, and detached cottages.

Middletown is considering whether to allow accessory dwelling units not just for a family member but on a wider scale following passage by the Rhode Island General Assembly that modifies provisions of the state zoning enabling act.

On Dec. 14, the Planning Board, prompted by a Dec. 6 memo from town planner Ron Wolanski, first discussed the issue. At its Jan. 11 meeting, the board discussed it once again in a plan to have the town comply with the new state ordinance. However, assistant town solicitor Michael Monti told the board that the state ordinance, passed last spring, may also be rewritten due to various objections and enforcement issues statewide.

Board member Arthur Weber, Jr. said the state ordinance is going to exacerbate the problem. He said the “whole process of short-term rentals needs to be reevaluated,” adding that he is “uncomfortable” addressing accessory dwelling units first.

Monti said town solicitor Peter Regan has seen an “inherent conflict” with the state legislation. Monti said the town has the authority to ban accessory dwelling units, but said, “if we ban them, [we] still have to provide housing for family members.”

Monti said it is “unclear if [a ban] would hold up, if challenged.”

“There are groups advocating at the state level for the statutes to be redrafted to remove the conflict in the law,” he said. “It is unclear what the town can and cannot do [at this juncture].”

The state, he said, may not resolve their changes until July.

Vice Chair William Nash, Jr. said he is sympathetic to the issue of affordable housing, but this is not the right way to approach it. “Accessory dwelling is going to open up a Pandora’s box,” he said.

“We have to sort it out,” added Chair Paul Croce. “Fundamentally, I am opposed to allowing any dwelling unit by right. That is just asking for trouble.”

Monti said Middletown might still provide for reasonable accommodations for family members. He said state law compels towns to accommodate family members with disabilities, those 62-and-over, and some others. “Effectively, all family members,” he said.

Board member Betty Jane Owen said when she lived in another Rhode Island community, “family relationship had to be proven.”

This prompted board member John Ciummo to state that “every rule will be stretched” to determine who is a family member, leading to the town being forced to explore someone’s “genealogy.”

“I think there are better ways to address the affordable housing issue,” said Croce. “One could almost argue this goes against the comprehensive plan. It could change our neighborhoods completely.”

Weber said he is nervous that the state wants to eliminate local zoning laws for affordable housing. “I am afraid that the state is going to tell us how to zone,” he said.

Beyond one housing unit per parcel of land, other zoning considerations are in play, such as additional parking spaces required for each bedroom in a unit.

The Zoning Board of Review is seeking a recommendation from the Planning Board.

“The purpose of this legislation is to provide an option for additional housing,” Wolanski said. “You could recommend the Town Council not go that route.”

Croce said he wants “to get the sense of the council’s thinking” before any workshop is held.

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