SALEM — A controversial in-law apartment ordinance narrowly cleared a first vote of the City Council Thursday night, but the package is far from official passage with time running out.
An accessory dwelling unit ordinance, first introduced this past summer after calls for it at housing forums earlier in the year, passed the City Council 8 to 3 — with all eight votes needed for zoning changes to pass. The ordinance would allow in-law apartments to exist in homes without present-day restrictions that tie them to family or caregiver use only.
The pivotal breaking vote came from City Council President Steve Dibble, who has routinely voiced concerns over the ordinance but supported it Thursday night to keep the issue alive. If it failed, a special meeting would be needed before statutory deadlines on the ordinance would’ve led to its automatic defeat.
“I simply voted in favor of this to continue the discussion,” Dibble said, “so the ordinance can be strengthened and the residents can be protected.”
The vote was bundled with sending the ordinance back to the City Council’s ordinance committee for a meeting on Oct. 23. At that point, more changes can be made and the ordinance can be referred back to a regular meeting on Oct. 24 – just ahead of the ordinance’s expiration date.
In that case, if Dibble doesn’t vote in favor, one of the other dissenters Thursday night — councilors Tim Flynn, Elaine Milo and Arthur Sargent — would need to vote in favor to keep the ordinance alive.
The vote Thursday night came after the ordinance committee had already met to discuss the package for an hour earlier, along with hours of other meetings and public hearings on the issue.
Public comment was fiercely in support of the issue, with 12 of 13 speakers supporting the ordinance and only one — Fawaz “Fuzzy” Abusharkh, a Harrison Road resident — hinting at opposition.
In his remarks, Abusharkh highlighted the necessity to pass the ordinance twice to fit within statutory deadlines and urged the councilors to ensure all the changes they are considering be made before a single affirmative vote is made.
“I urge every councilor, if you have a change that needs to be done, please do it before the first passage,” Abusharkh said. “Make sure the changes you want happen. Otherwise, vote no.”
Ultimately, the councilors gave the ordinance that first passage before sending it back to committee.
Then there were residents like Erica Feldmann, a Chestnut Street resident and owner of Washington Street business HausWitch, who defended the ordinance.
“I’m a taxpayer and job creator, and I live above a garage,” Feldmann said. “I hire educated, young professionals to work in my shop and represent Salem, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find candidates who can afford to live here.”
Flora Tonthat, a Northey Street resident, said the ordinance is “meant to alleviate the overall housing crisis at all levels by making the current ADU ordinance less restrictive.”
Councilors opposed to the ordinance focused on how it doesn’t include more specific measures to ensure affordable units are created out of the ordinance.
The ordinance’s size restriction — 800 square feet per unit — was also an attacking point for opposing councilors.
“Eight-hundred square feet is bigger than a five-room, two-bedroom apartment,” said Councilor-at-large Arthur Sargent. “If these were studios, (that would be) a little more acceptable. But I think this is a big setback on our zoning, and I’m not willing to support it.”
The ordinance committee meeting will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 23, and the regular meeting following it on Thursday, Oct. 24. Both meetings will be held in the City Council chambers at City Hall, 93 Washington St.