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Tiny Houses Face Zoning and Other Obstacles in Massachusetts Featured

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Tiny Houses: Mobile Home or Trailer?: Yes and No Tiny Houses: Mobile Home or Trailer?: Yes and No

Tiny House fever is sweeping the nation. The public seems to be head over (w)heels for the concept—small yet artistically crafted homes offering the key elements of a house in the space of a traditional garden shed.

The allure of tiny homes has people buying them in hopes of skirting unattainable home prices. But new Massachusetts tiny home owners have a big problem—where can they put them?

As a Home Rule state, Massachusetts Municipalities have the power and freedom to enact and enforce their own Zoning Bylaws. Further, land uses and structures are also regulated under the Zoning Act, plus the Building Code and other state regulations. Most municipalities have utilized their land use authority to impose restrictions on residential dwellings, of course, and many have adopted siting specifications, permit requirements, and sometimes flat-out bans on mobile homes and trailers.

So begs the question—is a Tiny House a mobile home or trailer, as regulated by many Massachusetts municipalities? The short and inconvenient answer is both yes and no. A recent in-house survey shows the nuances of the question.

Tiny Houses are complex creations. There is no one formula or definition for a tiny home. They can range in size from less than 100 square feet to upwards of 1,000 (as a city apartment-dwelling resident, I can affirmatively say that tiny is subjective.) They can look like miniature Victorian homes decked with gingerbread trimmings, pint-sized manors with mansard roofs, or play-house log cabins. Their appearance is up the creator’s imagination.

One feature of many tiny homes proves to be their downfall in Massachusetts: wheels.

So what if a tiny house has wheels? A survey of 40 zoning bylaws of municipalities in central Massachusetts shows that many legal definitions of “trailer” or “mobile home” squarely include tiny homes on wheels—even if later placed on a permanent foundation. These definitions are often broad and vague.

For example, Section 10 of the Upton Zoning Bylaws defines a “mobile home” as: “A dwelling built upon a chassis, containing complete electrical, plumbing and sanitary facilities, and designed without necessity of a permanent foundation for year-round living, irrespective of whether actually attached to a foundation or otherwise permanently located.” To top it off, Upton further specifies that a mobile home is not considered a dwelling for zoning purposes.

So, in many municipalities, a tiny home built on wheels will be treated as a mobile home regardless of its other features. With this classification comes many obstacles:

Prohibition. Some municipalities outright prohibit whatever qualifies as a mobile home (tiny homes included) except in emergency circumstances (such as Stow and Milford), while others simply omit them from their tables of permitted uses (such as Franklin and Northborough).

Restriction. Other municipalities restrict the location of mobile homes to specific zoning districts, or trailer parks (like Westborough and Hudson). While some towns allow mobile homes as detached accessory apartments, depending on the municipality, there may be a familial relation requirement on the resident of the subordinate structure.

Special Permit. Often, mobile homes are only allowed with a special permit, and often the permission is only for a matter of weeks (such as in Maynard, Marlborough, Dedham, Cambridge).

While few towns have no restrictions on siting tiny homes on wheels as primary residences, they do exist. For example, under the Millis zoning bylaws a tiny house on wheels would qualify as a trailer, but trailers are allowed permanently in all residential zones with a special permit from the Millis Board of Appeal (although the permit must be renewed annually).

As a testament to their variety, not all tiny homes have wheels. In fact, those who choose to build wheel-less tiny homes on lots, from the ground up, have had some success in Massachusetts. When tiny homes are not regulated as mobile homes, however, there are still obstacles for the tiny-home owners to tangle with.

Even if a tiny home isn’t built on a chassis, siting it can still be thwarted through minimum residential floor area square footage requirements (such as a 600 square foot minimum in Holliston). State laws also come into play with State Building Code requirements, and mandatory minimum square footage requirements of the Board of Health (105 CMR 410). Tiny homes do face big challenges.

Massachusetts residents eyeing tiny homes are getting mixed messages. Tiny homes are popular, available, and affordable, but difficult to site. To rub it in, the Town of Concord hosted the “2nd BIG Tiny house Festival in 2016”—yet its zoning bylaws outright prohibit mobile homes.

Despite these challenges, there is progress in tiny home siting in Massachusetts. Nantucket recently amended its bylaws to include a provision for a “Tiny House Unit,” allowing mobile tiny homes to serve as primary, secondary, or even tertiary dwelling units.

Other municipalities may follow Nantucket’s lead and make special provisions for Tiny Homes. Without outright bylaw changes, tiny-home owners and their attorneys will have to do their homework to find places for tiny houses to call home.

Ms. Bowker is an associate of the firm.

Read 15955 times Last modified on Friday, 02 March 2018 15:28
Olympia A. Bowker, Esq.

OLYMPIA A. BOWKER, Esq. is an Associate at McGregor & Legere, P.C. in Boston. She helps clients with a broad range of environmental, land use, zoning, and regulatory matters in both administrative and legal forums.
Ms. Bowker’s work includes performing in-depth research on both the procedural and substantive aspects of legal issues; drafting memoranda for clients to communicate legal matters; drafting public records requests to state agencies; working with consultants and other entities to ensure consistent and professional presentation of materials in administrative and  legal filings; preparing clients for administrative proceedings; keeping clients up to date with the latest developments in their cases; tracking and organizing thousands of electronic documents and press for high-profile cases; and communicating with press and state agency representatives.
Ms. Bowker has extensively researched and contributed to presentations and treatises on topics such as: affordable housing, air pollution, Article 97, climate change, coastal zones, environmental justice, hazardous waste, Home Rule, organic waste, parklands, the public trust, regulatory review, regulatory takings, site remediation, underground storage tanks, storm water, waterways, wildlife and endangered species, zoning, and state and local enforcement actions.
Ms. Bowker has written for a variety of legal and environmental publications, including the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation, the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, Municipal Law Quarterly, the Real Estate Bar Association (REBA) newsletter, and the American Bar Association Student Lawyer Magazine. Ms. Bowker has written specifically on cutting edge municipal reform bills; the application of federal statutory language to state conservation regulations; the public trust doctrine and dam removal; microbead legislation in Vermont; and the delineation between legislative and non-legislative rules under the federal Administrative Procedures Act.
In addition to work at McGregor & Legere, Ms. Bowker also serves on an advisory council for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, where she keeps tabs on interstate and intrastate energy projects and environmental legislation in all fourteen states where the trail corridor passes.
Ms. Bowker graduated from the University of Vermont, and went on to receive both her Juris Doctor and Masters of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. In her time at Vermont Law School, she served on the editorial board of the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, and completed specialized coursework to obtain certificates in Land Use Law and Water Resources Law.
Prior to law school, Ms. Bowker conducted oceanic temperature research aboard a research vessel based out of Woods Hole, MA, and taught outdoor science classes at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
Ms. Bowker is licensed to practice law in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and is a member of REBA.

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