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Council keeps Watertown’s roommate zoning ordinance intact

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Christine M. Williams was not persuaded by the City Council’s argument on Monday night that the city should keep a recently amended zoning change regarding whether roommates should be able to live in single-family homes.

Attending the standing-room-only meeting, she argued with Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith whether residents could simply get around the zoning change through a variety of loopholes. Mr. Smith contended that council members had no intention of defining the modern family.

“If you don’t plan on enforcing it, why have it on the books?” said West Ten Eyck Street resident Cody J. Horbacz, who lives with his girlfriend, Jennifer Zecher, and their 4-year-old daughter.

In a 3-2 vote last month, council members 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, lived with his fiancée and two friends in his single-family home at 257 Thompson Blvd. Mrs. Cavallario objected to the arrangement because her neighborhood, zoned as Residential A, has only single-family homes.

It appeared the issue was resolved when council members eliminated a single sentence from the city code pertaining to a reference allowing “no more than four transient roomers” to live in a house in a residential district.

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid newspaper with a website, picked up the story on Friday, and game show host and comedian Drew Carey subsequently tweeted about it. Mr. Carey, host of the CBS show “The Price is Right,” called it “the Deborah Cavallario ‘No Roommates Allowed’ law from the dumb-asses in Watertown, NY.”

On Monday night, nine of the 10 people who spoke at the meeting were against the zoning change. One woman said she saw both sides of the issue, so she had not made up her mind. Many of them said residents need the extra financial support that roommates provide, so they were angry that council members did not understand why soldiers, young people and the elderly would need someone to help out.

“I’m actually ashamed of where I live,” said Washington Street resident Kevin F. Hoover Jr.

But council members Joseph M. Butler Jr., Roxanne M. Burns and Mr. Smith all tried to tell the crowd they were not discriminating against people in non-traditional families. All three voted for the zoning change at the Feb. 4 meeting.

The City Council kept the zoning change intact Monday night.

Mr. Butler was adamant that he was not trying to “redefine the family.”

“I do not have an issue with a couple living together; same sex, opposite sex, non-related, related,” he told the crowd. “I personally do not care who lives with who. It is none of my business, and I have said nothing to the contrary.”

Mr. Smith and the others said they were trying to protect neighborhoods that consist of single-family homes, while prohibiting boardinghouses and multifamily dwellings in Residential A neighborhoods. They also said the media got the story wrong.

At the end of the debate, Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham instructed the city’s Planning Department to review the definition of “family” in the city code to see if it violates any Fair Housing laws. Mr. Graham objected that the definition contained the phrase “blood relatives.”

The mayor, a bachelor with no children, said that the issue made him “cringe” when it surfaced and that his lifestyle came up during the 2011 mayoral election. In February, he opposed the zoning change partly because he saw the issue as “a neighbor dispute,” he said.

As a result of the national and international attention, a California woman, Eryne Daymont, began circulating a petition over the weekend contending that the zoning change should be rescinded. “One woman should not decide how modern families should be constructed,” Ms. Daymont wrote on her blog posting.

As of 9:30 p.m. Monday, 1,685 people from across the country had signed the petition, which has a goal of 2,000 signatures.

Earlier Monday, Mr. Graham asked for Mr. Carey to apologize and said that Mr. Carey’s comments referred to all residents of Watertown. As of Monday night, there was no word that the game show host said he was sorry.

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