4 min read

Planning Commission grapples with owner occupancy requirements

In addition to being insulting to potential tenants, these requirements reduce them to commodities rather than individual community members in need of housing.
Written by Nick Clark

The Planning Commission is statutorily tasked with updating the Town’s zoning bylaws following the adoption of a new Town Plan, which happened in Thetford in 2020. Zoning bylaws can cover a range of topics, from forest connectivity to night time light pollution; however they get the most attention for their impact on housing development. Zoning plays a crucial role in what types of homes can or cannot be built and where.

For example, structures taller than thirty feet are prohibited in Thetford unless they’re grandfathered. One reason given for this regulation is that our volunteer fire department doesn’t have the necessary ladder trucks to fight fires above a certain height. Such vehicles are prohibitively expensive for a town with a smaller tax base. Other regulations include owner-occupancy requirements for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs).

Thetford’s Zoning Bylaws state that, “The single-family dwelling or the accessory dwelling must be occupied by the owner of the property. In the case of change in circumstance, i.e. job transfer, sabbatical etc., the owner occupied dwelling unit can be rented out for a period of up to one year.”

Thetford’s Town Plan clearly highlights the housing shortage, which has only grown since the pandemic. The Planning Commission has been exploring ways to increase the availability of housing. Could modifying or entirely removing owner-occupancy requirements for ADUs help facilitate this stated objective? At their most recent meeting, Planning Commission members discussed the historical rationale of these requirements and the potential impacts of changing them.

There are two big arguments for owner-occupancy. The first argument is simply that the homeowner would be present to keep watch over the tenant and therefore maintain the character of the neighborhood and quality of life in the broader community.

“There’s an assumption I’m hearing that owner-occupied properties are better maintained than non-owner-occupied properties,” Liz Ryan Cole, Planning Commission member, said.

The second argument distinguishes between an owner-occupied property and an investment property. Because a tenant-occupied property generates income for the owner, it could be defined as a commercial use. If so, it creates the condition of mixing commercial and residential uses in a zone such as Rural Residential, where commercial uses are usually restricted. Owner-occupancy requirements limit the conversion to these “mixed-use” zones.

The above arguments consider only the owners of property and make assumptions that, in addition to being insulting to potential tenants, reduce them to commodities rather than individual community members in need of housing.

Owner-occupancy requirements effectively limit housing development and segregate people according to wealth. If you can’t afford to own a home in a certain community, then you can’t live there. And you can’t build an ADU that would affordably allow (potentially less affluent) non-homeowners to live there either, unless you live there yourself. At least not without a Conditional Use Permit from the Development Review Board. (An owner-occupied ADU requires only a simple Change of Use form from the Zoning Administrator.)

“What would happen if we eliminated owner-occupancy requirements?” Li Shen, Selectboard liaison to the Planning Commission, asked. “Are you trying to prevent some distant corporation from buying up all the rentals?”

“If there’s no owner-occupancy requirement,” said David Forbes, Chair of the Planning Commission, “what we’re basically doing is opening the door to just that kind of thing – absentee landlords for long-term rentals who may or may not have a positive and engaged interest in the condition of their domiciles.”

“So, they don’t have a stake in their community. Is that what you’re saying?” Li said. “What if an owner bought the house two houses down and they’re still on the same street? Where’s the line? They’re not occupying the same building as the rental, but they’re still part of the community.”

“Distinguish between owner occupancy and Thetford occupancy? That may be a way to approach this,“ David said. “If the owner, on the other hand, is living in Boston, that's a whole different kettle of fish.”

“I can see, potentially, areas in Bradford… Fairlee. West Fairlee is ripe for it: they have no zoning to speak of at all. Someone could go in there and buy up half the town frankly. I’m not talking next year. Maybe 5 to 10 years down the road, maybe a little more,” David explained.

What David and others are saying is that owner-occupancy requirements prevent corporations from owning everything (or in this case, ADUs), and the requirement theoretically mitigates wealth inequality and gentrification. Or conversely, slums. The counter-argument is that owner-occupancy requirements may contribute to gentrification by keeping certain classes of people from living in certain areas. Owner-occupancy requirements may effectively suppress housing development, which therefore increases demand and prices.

Oddly enough, two-unit developments do not have an owner-occupancy requirement in Thetford’s bylaws. The difference between a two-unit development, such as a duplex, and a single-family home with an ADU is minimal. The total square footage of an ADU cannot exceed 30% of the total dwelling or 500 square feet, whichever is greater. Units in a duplex don’t have any relational size requirements at all, and duplexes are also an allowable land use rather than a conditional one.

Even more odd, Thetford’s bylaws say that “Rooms without separate kitchen facilities in any owner-occupied dwelling unit may be rented to not more than three persons.” Enforcement aside, this implies that tenants cannot sublet in Thetford. While young adults are especially known to share a rental and split expenses, subletting a room is also a common model.

Any development with three or more units, owner-occupied or not, are considered Planned Unit Developments and have requirements of their own.

“[Owner-occupancy] will serve as a tool to… regulate over-development,” David said at the end of the discussion. Unless one were to write "duplex" on their zoning application instead of "ADU."