The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 31, 2002


Guests welcome: bylaw permits guest house, but no kitchen

Recently the board of health approved a septic system for a three-bedroom guest house to be added to a lot with an existing home. Building inspector Bob Koning says he has so far never received a request for a guest house permit during his tenure, though the town bylaw allowing guest houses was written decades ago. "But I'm not saying there are none out there," he said, pointing out that there could be buildings used as guest houses in town.

Under the bylaw a homeowner has the right to build a guest house on his property providing the building meets lot line setback requirements and setbacks for the homeowner's and abutters' septic systems and wells. First, a homeowner must obtain approval from the board of health for a septic system for a guest house and then apply for a building permit with the building inspector.

The bylaw as it is written allows two homes to be built on one lot and has no definition of temporary or permanent use of a guest house and no way to enforce how it is used. There is no definition of square footage limits or whether or not a guest house can be rented. The building inspector says his interpretation of the bylaw is that a guest house is permitted for temporary use and it cannot be bigger than the existing home. "The zoning bylaws are a book of tools. There's only so much you can do with what you have," Koning acknowledged, "You do the best you can with what you have."

Old BOA opinion: no kitchen

Since the septic system was approved for the guest house, a new development occurred. When former board of health member Bobby Lyman read that someone was planning to build a guest house on their property in town she remembered a document from the '80s that said a guest house could not have a kitchen. "All I remembered was 'no kitchen,'" she said, and then dug out of her old files a letter written by then zoning board of appeals clerk Donald Cochran in 1984.

At that time the board of health had asked the board of appeals for guidelines to clarify what constitutes a guest house. Though the board had never received a request for a guest house they wanted a definition to use should a request for one occur. "The board infers that 'private family guest house' would be for temporary guests of the family permanently residing on the property," the board of appeals opinion reads, "The guest house might not have a bathroom and might not be heated in the winter as the use is temporary, and definitely would not contain food preparation facilities inasmuch as guests take meals with their hosts."

"The opinion reaffirmed what the public thinks of as a guest house," says Lyman, whose memory and archives helped preserve town records on the subject. Before computers and the new Town Hall was built, records were often stored at board members' homes.

Current zoning board of appeals member Midge Eliassen says the opinion from the former board stands in effect "unless or until" the board chooses to review the opinion and change it, or someone else asks the board to review the document. Even though the restriction on guest houses is not written into the town bylaws, the prior zoning board of appeals document would prevent a guest home with a kitchen from being built.

The former board's opinion is "a decision that is on file and is a precedent," she said, adding that the board of appeals' role is to uphold and interpret zoning bylaws and to bring "common sense" to interpreting regulations. Eliassen expects the subject will be discussed at an upcoming board of appeals meeting.

Whether a permit for a guest house is approved or not approved, depends on what a homeowner presents as the use for the guest house, Koning says. Any decision made by the building inspector, either approving or denying a project, can be appealed to the zoning board of appeals.

Bylaw change rejected

The bylaw review committee, a group previously appointed by selectmen, proposed removing guest houses as a permitted use in a residential area at the 1999 Town Meeting but voters overwhelmingly defeated the bylaw change. "Zoning changes are the worst thing at Town Meeting," Koning recalls. "It's hard for people to vote on this. It's a tough decision for town folks to make." An amendment to a zoning bylaw can be also be made by a petition brought by residents, placed on the Town Meeting Warrant and voted by a two-thirds majority at Town Meeting.

Restrictions in other towns

Separate guest houses are not permitted in Acton where only one dwelling can be built on a house lot, says Acton building commissioner Gary Rhodes. However, residents there can convert a portion of an existing home into a rental apartment through a special permit, something that is also allowed in Carlisle and other towns.

In Concord, detailed definitions in its bylaws allow only one dwelling unit, defined as a home with a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom, per lot. Recently a homeowner applied for a permit to build a separate cottage with a kitchen, bedroom and bath on a ten-acre lot. The permit was denied by building commissioner John Minty based on the zoning restriction. His decision was appealed to the Concord Zoning Board of Appeals who overturned the building commissioner's decision and gave approval for the guest house. Concord town attorneys then reviewed the case and recommended the board of appeals rescind their decision permitting the cottage, since the town bylaw does not permit two separate dwellings. The homeowner has since decided not to build the guest cottage after all the controversy.

Minty says he is aware that owners of some of the larger estates in that town would like to put up separate buildings to house health care providers, au pairs, groundskeepers and other household staff. Concord is considering proposing a change to its bylaws that would allow a homeowner to apply to the board of appeals for a special permit to build a guest house, but voters would need to approve any change at Town Meeting.

In Lincoln, bylaws permit only one house per lot, however residents there can apply to the board of appeals for a special permit to build a guest house.

Accessory apartments, home offices

A bylaw that works well in Carlisle is the accessory apartment provision which was added to regulations in 1989 by former long-time resident Kay Kulmala. The bylaw was added to allow an apartment, attached to a house, for dependent relatives of residents, and to "increase the availability of moderately priced housing for town employees, the young, the elderly, and people of low and moderate income." Apartments have limitations on their square footage and require a special permit from the planning board. Koning says accessory apartments can be used to house family members, "The tools are in place to add a home for relatives and family members in Carlisle."

Another bylaw allowing home businesses also works well for the town. The law permits the use of a portion of a dwelling, or an accessory building, to be used as an office, studio or workroom. An accessory building does not have a kitchen and is not a home. There are restrictions on the size of the office and the number of employees.

There are hundreds of home offices in Carlisle that are permitted under this bylaw, says Koning, "As long as they're quiet and not interfering with the rights of others, people also have the right to have home businesses and studios."

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito