When time has allowed over the past year, the Planning Board has been discussing ideas about potential amendments to the Zoning Bylaws on two topics that are partly inter-related. One is the expansion of opportunities to create 2-family houses. The other is reverting to less restrictive dimensional requirements in the denser residential areas of town.
The first is one of the strategies suggested in the Town’s 2019 Housing Study to help the housing market to serve a wider range of needs. That study followed on from the Comprehensive Plan of 2013, which drew attention to the increasing number of small households, the rise of house prices relative to incomes and the tendency for new houses to be larger (‘mansionization’). The second idea has been floated intermittently by residents or board members who note that Bedford’s traditional higher density neighborhoods fostered walkability and social interaction as well as a degree of ‘natural’ (market rate) affordability. Some people also consider it burdensome for owners of existing houses in these areas, which have become ‘non-conforming’ due to rezoning, to need approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals for most additions.
These ideas are being discussed against a background of increasing concern and evidence about escalating house prices, difficulties faced by new young households or seniors looking to downsize, and social exclusion.
Bedford’s overall housing stock is dominated by single family houses, although it does have some 2-family houses as well as apartment blocks and town house condominiums. The creation of more 2-family houses is currently tightly restricted by the Zoning Bylaw. With a relaxation, 2-family houses could potentially provide more moderately sized and priced units that use land efficiently without a big visual impact.
The Bylaw currently allows 2-family dwellings in all residential districts but only under two scenarios:
Conversion of a single-family dwelling that existed in 1945, by special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals
New construction on an unbuilt lot that existed in 1992 and that has 1 ½ times the standard minimum lot area
There are also conditions about parking and appearance, and a minimum unit size in conversions.
(scroll down for full text of Section 4.2.2; the special permit requirement is in Table 1)
The great majority of Bedford’s houses have been built since 1945 and there are fewer than half a dozen remaining available lots of 1 ½ times the standard size.
This current bylaw dates from the 1990s and is more restrictive than earlier versions which allowed the construction of areas of duplexes such as Bedford Gardens. Lot sizes in the earliest versions of the bylaw were also much smaller.
Possible ways of relaxing the current bylaw might include dispensing with the 1945 date for conversions, bringing it up to the present date, and removing the higher lot area requirement and its associated date for new construction. The more relaxed rules could be applied in all residential districts or limited to certain ones. Rules about parking etc. could be changed or remain the same. Another question is whether the need for a special permit for the conversion option can be removed.
Many people have observed that it is possible to build 2-family houses that are no bigger than many of the new single-family houses that are being built. A possible concern, however, is that in areas of town where lots are large, there would be little to limit the size. The use of Floor Area Ratios, which limit the gross floor area of a house, or of all buildings on a lot, to a proportion of the lot area, is one way in which this concern could be addressed. Such ratios could be applied either just to 2-family houses or to single-family houses as well.
New 2-family house (left) and one-family house (right) – examples from Concord
The second strand of discussion focuses on older areas of town that either pre-dated the first Zoning Bylaw (1945) or were developed under early versions, and now contain mostly non-conforming properties. These are now within the Residence C District Zoning Map. Some are close to the town’s central business and services and bus stops, where there is the strongest case for re-formalizing support for denser development patterns. However some are in more peripheral locations such as around the South Road/Summer Street intersection and near the Concord River off Davis Road. Options are likely to need some discussion.
In all these matters, the Planning Board and the town will need to seek a good balance between making the bylaw simple and tailoring it to different situations.
Extract from Zoning Bylaw
4.2.2 Two Family Dwelling
A single-family dwelling in existence on March 1, 1945 may be converted to accommodate no more than two families, provided that:
(a) Each dwelling unit shall have a minimum gross floor area of 800 square feet;
(b) No exterior changes are made, which, in the judgment of the Board, do not conform to the single-family character of the neighborhood.
126.96.36.199. Lot existing on January 1, 1992
A two-family dwelling may be built on a lot in existence on January 1, 1992, provided such lot was not held in common ownership with any adjoining land and has one and one-half times the minimum lot area for the Zoning District and provided the following conditions are met:
(a) The two-family dwelling shall be new construction, it cannot be conversion of an existing building.
(b) Two off-street parking spaces shall be provided for each dwelling unit.
(c) No more than two outdoor parking spaces shall be located in the required front yard. All other parking spaces shall be either: (1) outdoor parking spaces located in a side or rear yard, or (2) in a garage or carport.
(d) Parking spaces shall be located so that both dwelling units shall have at least one parking space with direct and unimpeded access to the street without passing through a parking space designated to serve the other dwelling unit.
(e) Where there are more than two outdoor parking spaces, there shall be provided suitable screening with evergreen or dense deciduous plantings, walls, fence or combination thereof in the area between the parking space and front lot line. Screening shall be sufficient to minimize the visual impact on abutters and to maintain the single family appearance of the neighborhood.
(f) Only one exterior entrance shall be located on the front facade of the dwelling.