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Planning Board proposes changes to Watertown’s controversial “roomate law”


City officials are looking at language dating back to 1922 and the city of Watertown’s original zoning law to fix the so-called roommate law.

After discussing the issue for about 30 minutes on Tuesday, the city Planning Board unanimously approved a series of amendments to the controversial zoning law change pertaining to roommates.

If approved by the Watertown City Council on Monday night, the proposed amendments would get council members off the hook from a zoning change that brought them criticism for trying to regulate lifestyles and living arrangements

The issue first came before the board in January after a Thompson Boulevard resident complained her neighbor was living with his fiance and two friends. The neighborhood is made of single-family houses and is zoned as a Residential A district.

The Planning Board members recommended:

n Not allowing boarding houses in Residential A neighborhoods, as was the wish of the majority of council members when they passed the controversial “roommate law” in February.

n Slightly changing the definition of family by allowing “any number of individuals living and cooking together on the premises as a single housekeeping unit.” That definition comes from the original 1922 zoning ordinance, City Attorney Robert J. Slye said.

n Differentiating boarding houses from family dwellings.

n Spelling out that boarding houses consist of no more than six sleeping rooms that provide lodging for compensation. Rooms would not have separate cooking facilities and meals may or may not be provided in a common area. Meals also would not be served to nonlodgers. The term would include lodging houses, rooming houses, tourist houses, bed and breakfasts and other group-living arrangements.

n Leaving language out about nontransient roomers. Council members voted to eliminate that phrase back in February, which, at the time, created much of the mess.

The new language passed on Tuesday by a 5-0 vote, with board member Lori J. Gervera absent and Megan Pistolese no longer on the board because her term expired last month. Before the vote, however, board member Neil Katzman asked if they could cast a secret vote. Mr. Slye responded by saying it was a public meeting and board members had to vote in an open forum.

The issue had become such a political hot potato earlier this year that Planning Board members expressed relief after getting the controversy apparently behind them on Tuesday.

Planning Board Chairwoman Sara S. Freda quipped after the vote, “We survived that one.”

The recommendations were drawn up in recent weeks by the city’s engineering, code enforcement and planning offices, and Mr. Slye.

While they were pleased with what they voted on Tuesday, Planning Board members stressed it will be up to council members to accept their recommendations.

“I think it makes sense,” said Planning Board member Pat A. Fontanna.

On Monday night, council members can also consider an alternative offered by Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, who suggested the problems could be solved by putting the nontransient phrase back into the ordinance. He also suggested looking at another section pertaining to the definition of family. He proposed keeping language that would allow “any number of individuals living together as a single housekeeping unit.” But he suggested removing the following language: “to distinguish it from a club, fraternity, or boardinghouse, not more than four members of a family shall be other than blood relatives.”

In a 5-1 vote, the board removed language pertaining to roomers. In February, the City Council passed it. The zoning change became a public relations nightmare for the city, bringing dozens of people to council meetings, and elicited widespread criticism on social media platforms.

Supporters defended the change, contending the media blew the issue out of proportion. They also argued they were trying to protect Residential A districts from boarding and rooming houses.

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