Will accessory dwelling units mean more entry-level homes?

Where Do We Go From Here?

For the last three weeks I have attended the planning commission and selectboard hearings on the proposed amendments to the land-use regulations.

Before the selectboard’s Sept. 20 hearing on the proposed amendments, I had a good conversation with a life-long Charlotter who knows the town like the back of his farming hand. We talked about accessory dwelling units and finding ways for development of more modest homes in town.

He said not everyone can live in Charlotte. I interpreted this to mean the town is not responsible to guarantee housing for anyone, per se. I agreed, but said there are ways to make modest housing less expensive, especially in the village.

Present at the selectboard hearing were some residents, some planning commission members and development review board members. The most spirited discussion was around the proposed change to increase the square footage of accessory dwelling units. Currently, the size of an accessory dwelling unit is limited to 30 percent of the main structure or 1,000 square feet, whichever is larger. The proposed change is to increase from 1,000 square feet to 1,500 square feet. The majority of comments were not in favor of this proposed change.

This hearing was in stark contrast to the presentation by Taylor Newton, planning program manager at Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, to the planning commission on Sept.16. His presentation included a review of the proposed technical edits to the land-use regulations, an audit of existing village district regulations and recommendations to improve land-use regulations to allow for greater diversity of housing in the village and to “create a multi-year work program for the town of Charlotte to access grant funding to support a public engagement process and development of zoning regulation changes that will enable the creation of a dense, walkable village district in a manner that is supported by the community.” Taylor’s presentation was filled with positive steps the town can take to encourage modest growth and protect the things we value most.

My takeaway from all the hearings on the proposed amendments to the land-use regulations is that changes intended to precipitate focused development — whether in the rural or village districts — will be a very hard road. The overriding question is: What does the town at large really want?

I thought of the proposed accessory dwelling unit change while reading another recent front-page article in The New York Times about the housing crisis: “Whatever Happened to the Starter Home?” by Emily Bader.

Bader said, “Nationwide, the small detached house has all but vanished from new construction. Only about 8 percent of new single-family homes today are 1,400 square feet or less. In the 1940s, according to COreLogic, nearly 70 percent of new houses were that small.” “Those starter homes came in all kinds over the years: mill workers’ cottages, shotgun homes, bungalows, ramblers, split-levels, two-bedroom tract homes. American families also found their start in brick row houses, cozy duplexes and triple deckers.”

Some of us grew up in houses much smaller than what’s standard today. But things change, including the trend that bigger is better. The median house size has grown from under 1,400 square feet to over 2,000 in the last 60 years, yet households have shrunk in the same period from about 3.6 to 2 in 2020.

Bader concludes her article stating: “The simplest way to put entry-level housing on increasingly expensive land is to build a lot of it — to put two, three, four or more units on lots that for decades have been reserved for one home.”

How might this translate in Charlotte?