How to Know if your In-Law Flat is a Go: Deciphering your town’s zoning laws for accessory dwelling units

How to Know if your In-Law Flat is a Go: Deciphering your town’s zoning laws for accessory dwelling units

How to Know if your In-Law Flat is a Go: Deciphering your town’s zoning laws for accessory dwelling units

Ever since we came out with the Torrey, a number of our respective Mother-In-Laws have been dropping hints that they’d love to set one up in our (respective) backyards. It’s a compelling idea for a lot of reasons, and some of us do have some space on our lots for potential expansion, but questions abound. Do the lots suffice for an accessory structure? Does the town permit ADUs, and under what conditions?  Are cookies and free childcare implied in the arrangement?

If you’ve ever investigated your city or town’s rules about what you may or may not build, how you should build it, and whether you need a permit, you know that government websites can sometimes be difficult to navigate, and that code language is, at best, opaque. This is further complicated by the fact that every town organizes their website and the information found therein somewhat… shall we say… uniquely? Yes, let’s say that.

Fortunately, we’ve spent many a day with our noses buried in some town’s zoning ordinance, have developed something of a workflow to find what we need quickly, and are happy to do our part to demystify the process for you. Here, we walk you through navigating your town’s website to find answers.

Step One: Find your town’s website

This is, arguably the easiest step. If you are an avid googler, this next statement will come across as elementary, but for the folks who are still trying to figure out how the cats get through the Internet tubes, here is our foolproof search term algorithm.  Google [town or city] of [name of town], [state], website. For example, “City of Portland, ME, website.” The first result will almost always be the one you want.

Step Two: Find the Planning and Development Department section of the website.  

Typically there will be a link or drop-down menu called “Departments.” You will be looking for a department called Planning and Development, Code Enforcement, or Building and Zoning. There is no standardized term that every town will use, but the department you want has some combination of these words.

Step Three: Identify the appropriate files

Once you have found the appropriate department, you will be looking for these key words: CEO or Code Enforcement Officer, Zoning Map, Codes, Ordinances, Design Standards, Charter. You may need to click on a few of these to find what you need, but you are trying to find contact information for the Code Enforcement Officer, a map that indicates what building or planning zone in which your home is located, and the comprehensive development plan that will describe what types of buildings are permitted in each zone, as well as the rules that govern how they are built.

If you want, you can stop here. You have the CEO’s contact information, and you can write or call them with your questions. Some will be more open than others, and some will simply link you directly to the files you need. Our preference is to come into that conversation with at least the illusion that we have made an attempt to find the answers we are seeking, and we find that this also helps start things off on the right foot.  If you’re of a similar disposition, read on!

Step Four: Find your property on the zoning map.

This can be very easy or very hard, depending on your town’s participation in 21st century.  You may find that your zoning map is a PDF file, or a number of PDF files, with bright blocks of color and no street names.  If this is the case, Google Maps is your friend, and rivers, railway tracks, and major transportation routes will provide the patterns you need to locate your plot. Alternatively, you may find that your town has provided you with an interactive online map that you can search by address and select the layers of information you want to see. If this is you, do a fist pump, whisper “yesssssss” and select “zones” for the map overlay.  Take note of your zone and its abbreviation.

Step Five: Track down that elusive ordinance file

Locating the correct zoning ordinance file is arguably the most difficult, but you can do it. It will be called “Zoning” or “Ordinance” or “Charter,” and unless you live in a very small town, it will be at least a hundred pages long (Portland’s is 944 pages long). If you’ve opened a file and you’re not sure if it’s the right one, check out the table of contents. There should be references to different zones or districts both residential and commercial, wetland or open space preservation, building permits, and definitions. At the top should be the date the ordinance was adopted or amended– make sure it’s within the last few years. If you value your sanity, don’t try to read it.

Step Six: Find the Definitions.  

Usually they’re at the beginning, but sometimes at the end, and they are arguably the easiest part of the document to comprehend.  In this case, your goal is to find out whether your town has made provisions for accessory dwelling units in the code, and if so, what term the town is using to discuss them.  Alternative terms are “accessory apartment” or “efficiency unit”, and it’s very possible that your town has found some other word to describe it.  Your task is to learn what terminology will help you find the rules that govern building an ADU.

Step Seven: Locate your search term in the document

If you are using a Mac, hit Command + F.  On a Windows machine, Ctrl + F. A little search window will pop up at the top of your screen. Type in the term your town uses for Accessory Dwelling Units. That little window is your gateway. As you click the little down arrow, it will bring you to each mention of your search term, highlighted, so you can read what it has to say about your term. You will find that unrelated instances of the word pop up, or that there are several sections that seem to contradict each other regarding your search term.  Simply scroll far enough through to get some context – you will probably find that it describes your term for each zoning district. Ignore the ones that aren’t your zone. They have nothing to say to you and their opinions don’t matter. Takes notes on your understanding of the rules as they pertain to ADU’s in your zone, then move on to the next step.

Step Eight: Verify your findings with your local expert

Go back to the department landing page and find the CEO’s contact information. Write a polite email describing what zone you’re in, what you want to build, and your understanding of what you have found in the building code. Ask them to confirm your interpretation, and guide you to any documents, amendments, or specific portions of the code that might provide further clarity.

Congratulations! You made it!

Overall, there are a couple of themes that run throughout our research. For the most part, it is important that the ADU is only constructed on a lot where the owner resides, and that the ADU is not of overwhelming size or contrary to the appearance of the primary home. Generally speaking, when planning an ADU it is a good idea to make sure that it complies with the existing requirements for setbacks in the appropriate zoning district. You can learn about the setbacks on your property using the search strategy I outlined above, paying special attention to the particular zone in which your property is located.

Crowdsourcing Fun!

If you decide to take a crack at learning about your town, we would love to hear how you made out. Was the information above helpful? Did you get in touch with your CEO? Did you learn anything surprising about your town?  For example, we happened across a rule in Worcester stipulating that the only birds you are allowed to keep on your property (excepting household pets) are Carrier Pigeons. If you let us know what you find, we’ll share the most intriguing, most useful, and most confounding!

This blog post has been brought to you by Kai Fast, one of BrightBuilt’s crackerjack project coordinators, and blog-writer extraordinaire.