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Doctor in the house?

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A recent interpretation of Watertown’s housing code has once again refined our understanding of who may live together under specific conditions in single-family dwellings.

A house at 115 Ward St. was prepared for new occupancy last week. Furniture was moved in for use by the pending residents.

But Stewart E. Perkins, who lives across the street, was surprised to discover that Samaritan Medical Center was renting the house. The home will be used by four medical students who have yet to decide if they will become part of the hospital’s medical education residency program.

The city’s Code Enforcement Office received a complaint on Aug. 8 from Mr. Stewart, who wanted to know why Samaritan Medical Center should be allowed to use the house as “a dormitory” for several of its medical students. The block on which this home is located is within a Residence A district, a zoning classification that prohibits rooming and boarding houses as well as dormitories, fraternities, and bed-and-breakfast establishments.

The question of what makeup of diverse individuals qualifies as an official family has been a contentious issue in Watertown since the beginning of the year. The City Council voted a few months ago to accept the Planning Board’s recommendations that further restricted living arrangements among unrelated people in Residence A districts.

Council members Roxanne M. Burns, Joseph M. Butler and Jeffrey M. Smith voted to approve the measure, while Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham and Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso voted against it. This resulted in a wave of criticism and made the city look foolish.

Members of the Planning Board reconsidered their decision and came up with a better plan. But the City Council refused to discuss the new proposal, opting by the same 3-2 majority to keep the status quo.

And now this has required officials to waste their time to parse words and find loopholes in the city code. They didn’t want to tell Samaritan Medical Center it couldn’t use the Ward Street residence to house its students, so they came up with an intriguing response to the complaint lodged by Mr. Perkins.

Kenneth A. Mix, the city’s coordinator for planning and community development, said the so-called roommate law doesn’t apply in this instance. The rented house on Ward Street is a “primary use” by Samaritan Medical Center, not an “accessory use,” Mr. Mix said. The residence would be an accessory use if the owner was living there with the students, he said.

So people can own homes in Residence A districts and rent them to unrelated individuals as long as they don’t live there themselves. Does having absentee owners loaning out their homes to strangers truly adhere to the spirit of the city’s housing code? Can we really call such an accommodation a “family”?

This shows the real trap of trying to micromanage people’s living arrangements. The city could well be deluged with questions about any number of unconventional housing situations to determine if they fall within the new rules.

Is this really how we want city officials and staff members to spend their time? The three City Council members who voted to amend the city’s housing code have opened Pandora’s Box, and who knows what troubles lay ahead?

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