Beacon residents find benefits in ‘accessory dwelling units’
Stella Hlad’s search for a condominium to buy in Beacon, to be closer to her son, Scott Ramsey, led to a frustrating reality.
Beacon’s real estate market, with some condos selling for more than $1 million and the average sales price for a home at $525,000 in November, represented an unscalable wall for her, even with $250,000 to spend.
“There’s no way we could have purchased a home for her in town,” said Ramsey.
So, they built one in the backyard.
On a recent Monday, Stella showed off the features of her 450-square-foot “tiny house,” built behind the Walnut Avenue home of Ramsey, and his partner, Brian Donnelly. Under a slanted cantilevered roof, and behind corner windows, Stella’s new refuge offers a bedroom, bath, kitchen and living room, hallways wide enough for a wheelchair, and a launching pad for her busy social life.
“I love Beacon,” she said. “I just feel like the luckiest person to have landed here.”
In a city where residential construction is dominated by high-priced apartments and condominiums, a few homeowners are choosing to build accessory dwelling units (ADU) like Hlad’s as housing for relatives or income-producing apartments.
About 30 units had been developed before September 2022, when the Beacon City Council voted to amend the zoning code to streamline the process for building ADUs between 200 and 1,000 square feet. The Building Department issued permits for four ADUs in 2022, and one this year, said City Administrator Chris White.
With last year’s changes, Beacon allows one ADU per single-family lot and requires that the owner live on-site and not use the unit for short-term rentals such as those booked through Airbnb. Projects can exceed 1,000 square feet if the apartment will be built in an existing accessory building constructed before Aug. 1, 1989.
The Planning Board reviews proposals for accessory dwelling units that are separate from an existing single-family home or change the footprint of the home. Beacon’s building inspector can approve apartments within a single-family home.
Despite a setback before the Zoning Board of Appeals in June, Kristin Battersby and her father, Jeff Battersby, want to preserve the hoary 19th-century garage at the end of the driveway alongside the family’s house on Willow Street. Their goal is to convert the crumbling, two-story structure into a 1,040-square-foot, one-bedroom rental apartment.
“It’s a relic of Beacon gone by, so I’d love to keep it and make it affordable,” said Kristin Battersby.
Affordability is not just a fading reality for low- and moderate-income families looking for housing in Beacon. Even a studio condo in Beacon can cost more than the $250,000 spent to construct her ADU, said Hlad.
The original plan on Walnut called for a 300-square-foot structure to comply with Beacon’s limit on the amount of space allowed for the accessory building. Even though construction of the accessory unit required lopping off a third of the garage, they still exceeded the limit by 138 square feet.
But by the time they submitted their application to the Planning Board in April 2022, they had decided to increase the size, even though it meant having to seek a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals and the addition of six weeks to the approval process, said Ramsey.
The board granted the variance the next month and construction began in fall 2022. “If we’re going to make this giant investment, and it’s for the rest of our lives, it’s worth the additional six weeks,” he said.
Hlad agreed. She first started coming to Beacon for several months each summer to escape the Texas heat, but found herself staying longer. During the approval and construction process, she lived on the second floor of Ramsey and Donnelly’s house, which had been a two-family residence with a second kitchen upstairs.
The ADU will be her residence for eight months out of the year, with the remaining four months spent with her other son in Texas. Her social life includes volunteering with the Beacon Historical Society, reading essays at the monthly LitLit open mic at the Howland Cultural Center and worshiping at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Garrison. “I have so many friends in Beacon,” she said.
The Battersbys want to convert their garage into an apartment with a kitchen and living area downstairs, and a second-floor bedroom. The apartment would also help recoup the price of preserving the building, which has “beautiful, late-1880s architecture,” said Kristin Battersby.
Their application to the Planning Board in October 2022 had two hurdles. The garage is built on property lines, without the rear and side setbacks required. Beacon also prohibits more than one main building on a residential lot, and the Battersby’s house is already zoned for two families.
The Zoning Board of Appeals waived the setback requirements in July, but voted against allowing the conversion of the garage because a majority of the board said it would constitute a second main building.
The Battersbys remain committed to the project. “We’re still working with the city and our architect to make it possible to rehab that building,” said Jeff Battersby.
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