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Housing animosities

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Why progress when you can maintain the status quo?

That seemed to be the mindset of the Watertown City Council during its meeting Monday. Roxanne M. Burns, Joseph M. Butler and Jeffrey M. Smith voted against amending the city code dealing with housing regulations.

They approved a change earlier this year to what’s been referred to as the “roommate law.” Based on a complaint from a resident living on Thompson Boulevard, the Planning Board recommended altering provisions in the city code that allowed unrelated individuals to live together in a single-family house.

This was an unwise move on the part of the Planning Board. It made proponents look like they were attempting to impose their personal ideas of what constitutes a proper family on the entire city. They discarded the fact that more unmarried couples choose to own houses together, and young homebuyers as well as empty-nesters find it necessary to invite others to live with them to share expenses.

The poor decision by the Planning Board was compounded by Ms. Burns, Mr. Butler and Mr. Smith. In February, they voted to accept the Planning Board’s recommendation, resulting in an avalanche of criticism.

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham and Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso voted against the proposed amendment. Mayor Graham recommended making a change to the definition of “family” in the city code by keeping the wording “any number of individuals living together as a single housekeeping unit” and removing the phrase “to distinguish it from a club, fraternity or boarding house, not more than four members of a family shall be other than blood relatives.”

These were the changes before the council last week — all shot down. Mayor Graham’s suggestions would have enhanced the city’s position on this issue a tad, even though they were legally vague. The council should have taken up a new proposal by the Planning Board, which recognized its initial error and passed these provisions:

* Not allowing boarding houses in Residential A neighborhoods.

* 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.

* Differentiating boarding houses from family dwellings.

* 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 non-lodgers. The term would include lodging houses, rooming houses, tourist houses, bed and breakfasts, and other group-living arrangements.

* Leaving language out about non-transient roomers.

Mr. Butler and Mr. Smith said the Planning Board’s proposal was not on the table as was Mayor Graham’s. No council member bothered to put it forward.

Playing politics rather than implementing good policy may well have been the impetus for voting on Mayor Graham’s plan and ignoring the comprehensive proposal recommended by the Planning Board. This year’s race for City Council seats has heated up partly due to this controversy.

Focusing on Mayor Graham’s plan showcased his support for Ms. Macaluso and his opposition to Mr. Smith, who challeneged the mayor in 2011 — and the entire council went along with it. Officials should use their power to move the city forward, not shove rivals aside.

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