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Borough Zoning Commission Considers Attached/Detached ‘Accessory Apartments’



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Borough Zoning Commission (BZC) members are considering creating some new zoning regulations that would allow both attached and detached “accessory apartments” at borough properties that contain single-family houses.

Five members of the commission spent about an hour on February 12 discussing the advisability of such regulations, which would liberalize the borough’s legally allowed residential uses. The session was not a public hearing, so the conversation occurred among commission members.

The town Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) has zoning regulations that allow accessory apartments, both in “attached” form, or within a house, or in “detached” form, oftentimes as residential space above an outbuilding garage.

The densely built Borough of Newtown, which is an administrative tax district, occupies the central 2.3 square miles of the 59.1-square-mile Town of Newtown. Approximately 2,000 of the town’s roughly 28,000 residents live in the borough.

The zoning commissions of other municipalities in the region commonly allow accessory apartments.

During the February 12 discussion, BZC Chairman Douglas Nelson noted that although they are illegal, there are many de facto accessory apartments at residential properties in the borough. One estimate puts their number at “several dozen.” Such facilities sometimes are known as “in-law apartments.”

Local officials often learn that such facilities exist through complaints lodged by people living near such apartments. Because each zoning commission in the state has an enforcement function embodied by its zoning enforcement officer, enforcement actions against violators occur. If the borough were to create regulations covering accessory apartments, people who currently own such facilities would then have a regulatory mechanism through which they could legitimize such uses.

Mr Nelson noted that accessory apartments have never legally been allowed by the commission. The borough enacted its zoning regulations long before the town created its zoning regulations in 1958.

If the BZC were to create rules on accessory apartments, it would enact regulations that specify the many details of such a use. One likely regulation would require the owner of a property with an accessory apartment to live at that property. Basic requirements for such apartments may include that there be one bedroom, one kitchen, one bathroom, and two access points to the accessory apartment.

Creating an accessory apartment or legalizing one that already exists would involve the property’s owner obtaining a zoning permit.

Mr Nelson said that if there are as many illegal accessory apartments in the borough as borough officials believe, there obviously is the need to create zoning rules to regulate such facilities.

Notably, the borough zoning regulations currently allow the owners of single-family houses to take in roomers and boarders at their premises.

Mr Nelson said he plans to create a formal proposal for regulations covering borough accessory apartments soon. It is unclear whether having such zoning regulations would result in more such facilities being created in the borough, he said.

The BZC is reviewing the town’s zoning regulations, which address in detail both attached and detached accessory apartments. Many of the borough’s zoning regulations are based on the town’s zoning regulations, but the town’s regulations are much broader in scope.

One basic difference between the town and the borough is that most of the borough has municipal sanitary sewer service, and only certain sections of the town are sewered, relying instead on septic systems. Having access to sanitary sewers simplifies wastewater disposal, one of the issues involved in creating accessory apartments. Also, most of the borough is served by a public water supply, while only sections of the town have access to public water, relying instead on domestic water wells.

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