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Watertown official: Roommate ordinance covers all city neighborhoods

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The zoning flap over nonrelatives living together will have implications in residential neighborhoods all over Watertown — not just roommates sharing living quarters in single-family homes, a city official said.

The recent zoning change that bans roommates from living in single-family homes in Residential A neighborhoods also will affect Residential B and C districts, code enforcement supervisor Shawn R. McWayne said.

“It affects all residential districts,” he said, noting it could cause parking issues. “It affects A,B, and C.”

During recent debate, residents who have complained that the zoning change was both intolerant and discriminatory were told it affects only roommates living in single-family houses in Residential A districts.

City officials denied they purposely misled residents.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said Thursday that City Council members simply “overlooked” the ramifications on how the other residential districts would be affected. He said he learned about the expanded implications after talking to Mr. McWayne on Wednesday.

“The issue, when it was discussed and debated, it was all about Residential A,” he said.

The public has blasted council members for approving the zoning change that eliminated a single sentence from the city code pertaining to a reference allowing “no more than four transient roomers” and applying to “accessory uses in residential districts.” As a result of the change, no transient roomers are allowed to live in Residential A.

The “nontransient” clause was put in decades ago when large houses began to be built on small lots in the city, Mr. McWayne surmised.

In a 3-2 vote last month, the council passed the change after Thompson Boulevard resident Deborah A. Cavallario, a former Watertown City School District Board of Education member, found out that next-door neighbor Travis W. Hartman, a city Department of Public Works employee, has been living with his fiancée and two friends in his single-family home at 257 Thompson Blvd.

Mrs. Cavallario, 259 Thompson Blvd., objected to the arrangement because her neighborhood, zoned as Residential A, has only single-family homes. She had complained about the number of vehicles parked on his property.

Mr. Hartman has insisted he just needed some financial assistance after buying the small ranch-style house last year. The roommates don’t pay rent; instead, they contribute by purchasing groceries for the household, he said last month.

But the story went viral after being picked up by a British online publication, MailOnline. Even comedian and television game show host Drew Carey chimed in, calling people in Watertown “dumb-asses” for passing such an ordinance.

Opponents believe it cannot be enforced. Mr. Graham said the city has no interest in looking for unrelated roommates who live together, so nothing has changed.

In defending themselves Monday night, Councilmen Jeffrey M. Smith and Joseph M. Butler told people at last week’s meeting they were not intolerant. They said they were just trying to protect Residential A neighborhoods from single-family houses being turned into boarding homes.

On Friday, Mr. Butler insisted the change affects only Residential A districts — not Residential B and C — because those districts “already allow accessory uses” for boarding houses, rooming houses and lodging houses.

“The impact that people think, it’s not going to happen,” Mr. Butler said.

Yet Mr. McWayne said it could affect some people in the Residential B and C districts, as well. They may have to go through the same zoning process that property owners who convert their homes to apartments do, he said.

The process takes into account square footage of houses, lot sizes and amount of required parking, he said, so some property owners may have to designate adequate parking for their roommates on site.

With the lack of parking in some parts of the city, Mr. McWayne said, “It will probably mean people will park on the street.”

Mr. Butler has been surprised by the response from the public. He has been getting emails from all over the country criticizing the decision. And local residents want to know why he voted for it. He blames all the fuss on the British online publication.

“It was all distorted by the British tabloid,” he said. “We wouldn’t be having this discussion if it wasn’t for that. We just tried to do the right thing.”

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