Tiny house owner in Hadley plans to take her case to Zoning Board of Appeals

Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

HADLEY — As Sarah Hastings plans to meet with local boards to see if zoning regulations can be changed to accommodate her “tiny house” on a homeowner’s East Street property, local and state officials say they are reviewing how current zoning laws and state building ordinances might be updated to allow the miniature dwellings, which are growing in popularity nationally.

Hastings said last week that she had spoken to Timothy Neyhart, the Hadley building inspector, about a notice of violation she will receive. The notice will give her 90 days to vacate her East Street location.

“I understand what it is and what the steps are to appeal it and amend a bylaw,” she said. “It will take months and months, but I think this conversation is bound to happen. So many people are contacting me saying they’d like to bring a tiny home to the area because they thought it would be a nice area to do so. Now they are worried the zoning is too tight.”

She plans to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals to defend her right to stay.

Hastings, 22, who graduated this year from Mount Holyoke College, built her 190-square-foot tiny house — complete with kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living room — as part of her thesis project. Since then, she has moved the home to a Hadley couple’s backyard. She pays a monthly rent of $300.

Neyhart, who said he had spoken with Hastings in June about setting the house up on a temporary basis, said last month he would serve her with a violation notice.

“I personally have no problems with tiny houses, but as the town official I have to enforce the zoning bylaws,” he said.

William Dwyer, clerk of the Hadley Planning Board, said tiny houses have not been on the Planning Board’s radar, but that such structures might be considered in town. The main obstacle is Hadley’s restriction on multiple housing units on one lot, he said.

“Hadley is zoned for one dwelling per lot in a large part because of what happened to Amherst and Sunderland with apartment complexes for students,” he said. “That was pretty much a reaction to that.”

At the same time, the Planning Board does have leeway to approve accessory apartments of up to 900 square feet to be added to existing homes, and exceptions for senior housing.

The difference between accessory apartments — which are often used to house family members — and tiny houses may not be significant, but Dwyer said there would be details to consider.

“I gather that the woman is not connected to a septic system, and that may be problematic,” he said. “With an accessory apartment, that would be connected. We say it specifically in the bylaw.”

How such a home would be connected to electric service would also have to be addressed, he said.

Dwyer said the town’s master plan says nothing about tiny houses, but that an update of the plan is in a draft stage and can be changed. A master plan update forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Senior Center, 46 Middle St.

To change the zoning bylaw, Hastings would have to either go before the Planning Board or try to draft her own zoning article for a Town Meeting warrant.

Dwyer said the Planning Board had received emails from people who read a Daily Hampshire Gazette report about Hastings’ living situation and asked that the board allow her to stay.

“We replied with the comment that she doesn’t have anything in front of us and we’re not taking any action one way or the other,” he said.

State housing supply

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said one of the Senate study committees he put together is looking at the future of the housing supply in Massachusetts. Tiny houses could be a part of that, he said.

“We have a shortage of affordable ownership housing,” he said. “Rents and property costs are too high for a substantial portion of the population. People’s incomes are frozen these days and not keeping up with the cost of living.”

Rosenberg said Americans tend to have homes that are substantially larger than needed, and larger than what would be found in much of the rest of the world. The committee’s forthcoming report will not contain information about tiny houses, but it is a topic Rosenberg asked them to consider for the future, he said.

“I think we need to adapt to the realities of our time, and having smaller residences can be very helpful, especially for young people coming out of college,” he said.

Living in such small quarters also reduces an individual’s carbon footprint, which is better for the environment, he said.

Building codes

Robert Anderson, chief of building inspections for the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety, said Massachusetts building codes follow the International Building Code 2009 edition, and that the state is moving toward accepting the 2015 edition. Neither version includes definitions or standards for tiny houses, he said.

The state amends the code, and Anderson — who sits on the Board of Building Regulations and Standards — said he believes that if tiny houses were to be allowed in Massachusetts, some alterations would have to be made. For instance, both versions of the International Building Code require rooms to be a certain size and roofs to be a certain height. Both of those guidelines might have to be altered to accommodate tiny houses, he said.

“What I’ve seen, and I’ve only seen them on TV, perhaps would not meet those minimum standards,” he said.

Another issue is whether a tiny house would have a permanent foundation rather than wheels. Hastings’ house is on wheels so it can be moved if needed — though she said she would prefer that it stay in one place.

Proposed changes to the code can be submitted by anyone to the Board of Building Regulations and Standards for consideration, according to Anderson. He and 10 other appointed members would then consider the change.

Some tiny house owners, both in Massachusetts and in other states, have sought to keep their homes under the radar to avoid the type of violation notice Hastings will receive.

Hastings, however, is prepared to work with local and state regulators. She has a backup place to stay in case she has to move, but hopes it does not come to that.

“I know there’s going to be obstacles for sure, but we do need to think about changing what the rules are,” she said.

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


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