Hadley tiny house owner in legal limbo over zoning regulations, may have to move

Last modified: Monday, October 19, 2015

HADLEY — Mount Holyoke College graduate Sarah Hastings believes she has built an ideal living situation — kitchen, bedroom, living room and bathroom all in 190 square feet of living space with a beautiful bedroom-window view of the sunrise over Hadley farmland. It’s called a tiny house.

The only problem is that it is also illegal.

Timothy Neyhart, building commissioner and zoning enforcement officer for Hadley, said he was sympathetic to the tiny-house movement, which allows people to reduce their carbon footprint and simplify their lifestyle, but that both state and local zoning laws prohibit such structures in the way Hastings has hers set up.

“I am going to be giving her and the land owner a violation notice,” Neyhart said Friday. “I personally have no problems with tiny houses, but as the town official I have to enforce the zoning bylaws.”

Hastings, 22, said she fell in love with the idea of a tiny house as a first-year student at Mount Holyoke in 2012. She graduated in May.

“I wanted to be surrounded by something I created, but I realized I was too young to be investing in land and I didn’t know if this was the place I wanted to settle,” she said.

A tiny house could be constructed cheaply — Hastings wound up spending about $15,000 — and it could be moved. It would also let her be more environmentally conscious, reducing her living space and allowing her to reduce heating, electricity and water consumption.

The first people she had to convince were her parents, a businessman and a painter from Braintree who raised her in what she called a “normal house” in a “normal situation.” It was her persistence that won them to her cause, and her father regularly made time to help her with carpentry and other aspects of the project, at times for stretches of up to 12 hours, she said.

“I talked about it for a year and tried to bring up all sorts of concerns: how does water work; where do you go to the bathroom; what if it is illegal?” she said.

Inside Hastings’ tiny house, bamboo flooring covers all but a few inches of her living room, which contains funky 1920s furniture she found on Craigslist and at flea markets. The living room also serves as a kitchen with a sink, hot plate, microwave and a high-quality toaster oven. Beyond a small curtain is her bedroom which overlooks a stretch of her landlord’s farmland. She has a small shower with a hot-water heater and a space for a refrigerator. Right now she has a mini-fridge, but is hoping to upgrade, she said.

Her bathroom is accessible only from outside the house. She has a composting toilet in which she combines waste with peat moss to biodegrade and eventually become soil, she said.

Hastings found her landlords by going door to door in Amherst, Hadley and Northampton. She said she got a number of responses, and chose the spot in Hadley because Neyhart seemed willing to work with her and she liked the location.

Hastings said both state and local regulations were made decades ago and are out of date. She said she intended to be persistent with town officials about updating them to allow for tiny houses.

She has been up front about living in her tiny house, not wanting it to be a secret. She has a blog at www.rhizhome.com and a public Facebook page (www.facebook.com/rhizhome) talking about how her house works and what she did to get it built and situated.

“I want this to be more normal; I’m not trying to be a rebel at all,” she said. “A lot of people do this under the radar because they don’t want to have conversations about it. That is worrying because you need to be transparent about the safety aspect. If one person’s house burns down, it ruins it for the rest of the people. There needs to be regulations or guidelines.”

Neyhart said he and Hastings had several conversations in the spring and that he was interested in the house she had built. He said he was trying to help her out with the state and figuring out how such structures can be permitted.

State officials with whom Neyhart had been in contact no longer work in the state government, as much of the staff was replaced as part of the changing of the governor’s administration. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, succeeded Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in January.

The state classifies houses that were not built on their primary foundations on their lots as manufactured houses, which come with many regulations, Neyhart said. One of them is that such a house would have to be at least 320 square feet, nearly twice the size of Hastings’ house.

“The state needs to address it; they need to come up with a final decision on how these tiny houses will be classified,” he said.

The executive office for the Department of Public Safety did not return a call for comment Friday.

On the local level, Hadley zoning laws only allow one dwelling per buildable lot. Hastings pays $300 per month in rent to her landlords, Donna and Ron Adams, for the ability to “park” her house behind theirs. They did not return calls for comment Friday.

Select Board Member Gerald Devine said Friday that regulation was unlikely to change for tiny houses.

“If it is truly people trying to limit the carbon footprint of their life and live off the land, they can do that on pieces of property that don’t currently have other dwellings on them,” he said. “I’m very concerned that people live civilly. I don’t want it to become tent city structures set up in different places.”

Neyhart said he was willing to allow the Hastings’ tiny home to stay on a temporary basis, but said he has not heard from Hastings since June. He said that he will soon deliver a 90-day violation notice, meaning if the structure is not removed within that time period, both Hastings and the Adamses will receive a violation.

“I’m not the type of person to come out and say no to it, but I’m not going to have the ability to write regulation for it either,” he said.

Frank Wdowiak, a master electrician from Northampton, said he wired the tiny house while it was being constructed at Mount Holyoke College, but informed Hastings that she could not hook it up in Hadley. He said he was surprised to see the house hooked into the electrical grid when he drove by later.

“I think she should be called to task,” Wdowiak said Thursday. “Because of the zoning laws in Hadley, you cannot live in a trailer.”

Hastings said she intends to go before the Select Board or another board to state her case and that the impending violation notice will be an impetus to do it soon. The zoning issue is one that will have to be addressed for the tiny house movement to grow, she said.

Hastings said it is scary to think she might have to leave after all the work she put in to her house, but she is committed to working with the town.

“I have lots of support and a logical argument,” she said. “So many people want to do this.”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


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