Westport tries to diversify housing options with accessory apartments

An exterior of Westport Town Hall in Westport, Conn., on Friday Apr. 17, 2020.

An exterior of Westport Town Hall in Westport, Conn., on Friday Apr. 17, 2020.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Accessory apartments might soon be possible throughout the town, which officials say will help diversify the housing stock and introduce affordable options.

The planning and zoning commission are considering changes that would allow accessory apartments in all zones in town. Detached accessory units are currently only allowed on designated historic properties with a special permit.

The changes come from an affordable housing subcommittee, which started in 2018.

“The subcommittee was eager to draft this amendment as it will enhance the diversity of housing without diminishing the aesthetics of the town,” Michelle Perillie, the deputy planning and zoning director, said at a recent public hearing.

One goal is to allow seniors to age closer to their families. Another is to create a way for people who might not have been able to afford Westport to move to town, either as someone renting one of these apartments or as someone buying a home who could use rental money to help cover the cost.

The leases must be for six months to prevent short-term rentals.

“The idea is to create a new type of housing within the framework of our current housing,” said Danielle Dobin, the commission’s chairwoman.

She said the supplemental income could help keep people in town if they have a change in circumstance, such as a job change.

“On the flipside, it lets new people come in who might otherwise not be able to live one of these neighborhoods but will now have a smaller accessory apartment they could rent,” Dobin said.

Some officials said that while the idea to add affordable options is good, all of the units won’t be affordable or even factor into the state’s count for affordable housing within town.

“This is very necessary, it’s very good and it’s very timely, but I also don’t necessarily want to completely shroud it in affordability because there will be a couple of accessory dwelling units that won’t be affordable,” said commissioner Paul Lebowitz.

He said those on Beachside Avenue will most likely go for thousands of dollars a month and won’t be rented by the single mother who teaches in town or a firefighter or police officer who works in Westport.

“Let’s not call this completely affordable, but hope people will do the right thing,” he said.

The requirements differ on the type of housing and where the unit is located. Some examples are a finished basement or attic, an add-on like an in-law suite, a garage apartment, or a new detached construction.

Detached accessory units on lots that are 1.5 acres or less can have a footprint up to 650 square feet and can get a coverage deduction. Those units on lots greater than 1.5 acres can have a footprint up to 1,000 square feet but won’t get a coverage deduction. Outside stairs don’t factor into that number.

“We wanted to be aware we were setting people up to take advantage of this if they wanted to and to not feel as if this was only going to be in one area of town,” Dobin said.

Only one kitchen is allowed in the unit to ensure it’s a single dwelling. They can also have unfinished basements or cellars to provide storage but not livable space.

There’s no limit on how many stories these units can be as long as the maximum heights are met. Those with a 6/12 pitch or greater can be up to 26 feet tall, while those with less steep roofs can’t exceed 16 feet.

“This allows for much greater design flexibility,” Perillie said, adding this encourages deeper pitches, which offer better aesthetics.

Existing houses can have accessory apartments within the house itself, but they still can’t exceed 25 percent of the square footage. The proposed change would increase the maximum footage from 800 square feet to 1,500 square feet, however.

The commissioners were generally supportive of the changes to allow accessory apartments throughout town, but said there should also be guidance on the logistics for those who want to add them.

“I want to make sure our regulations address them so we’re giving proper guidance to people and not just letting them go willy nilly,” Lebowitz said.