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City Planning Board chairwoman now opposes zoning change

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Hindsight is 20/20.

City of Watertown Planning Board Chairwoman Sara S. Freda said Tuesday she now wishes she had not supported a zoning amendment that prohibits nonrelatives from living together in residential neighborhoods.

Based on a 5-1 recommendation from the Planning Board, the Watertown City Council approved the change in a 3-2 vote last month, which has led to a torrent of criticism from people who think city leaders are trying to regulate lifestyles and living arrangements.

The controversial amendment came after Deborah A. Cavallario, a Thompson Boulevard homeowner, complained her neighbor had his fiancée and two friends living with him in his single-family home in their Residential A district.

Ms. Freda now says the zoning change caused ramifications she did not foresee when the vote occurred in January. While she did not call it a mistake, Ms. Freda said she wishes she would have prevented all the fuss.

“I think it’s bigger than it seemed,” she said. “I don’t think it resolved the issue that (Mrs. Cavallario) was concerned with. I just think it has brought up a bunch of other issues.”

Ms. Freda’s comments came after she attended a private meeting Tuesday with Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham, City Manager Sharon A. Addison and Kenneth A. Mix, the city’s planning and community development coordinator.

Mr. Graham called the meeting in an effort to end the controversy, he said afterward. He plans to bring up the zoning flap at Monday night’s City Council meeting.

He said he wanted to talk with Ms. Freda to find out the Planning Board’s “take” on the issue and to see why the board supported the ban on roommates living in single-family homes in Residential A districts.

City residents blasted the council for approving the zoning change that eliminated a sentence from the city code 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.

During recent council meetings, residents complained the zoning change was intolerant and discriminatory. They also believe it cannot be enforced.

The mayor would not say much more about Tuesday’s hourlong meeting, but added he plans to “share his concerns” with council members Monday. He decided council members should talk about it because it remains a “sensitive” and “raw” issue.

During the meeting, Mr. Graham instructed Mr. Mix to get some advice from the state Department of State to see whether the city code follows fair housing laws. He also wants Mr. Mix to get advice from the state on how to get out of the mess.

On Tuesday, Ms. Freda said she does not know how the issue will be resolved. No matter what happens, she expects it will come up again before the Planning Board, probably when city staff members want to discuss it further.

Mrs. Cavallario, 259 Thompson Blvd., objected to her neighbor’s living arrangement because her neighborhood, zoned Residential A, has only single-family houses. She had complained about the number of vehicles parked on Travis W. Hartman’s 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, Mail Online. Even comedian and television game show host Drew Carey chimed in, calling Watertown officials “dumbasses” for passing such an ordinance.

In defending themselves, Councilmen Jeffrey M. Smith and Joseph M. Butler have said they were not intolerant. They said they were just trying to protect Residential A neighborhoods from single-family houses being turned into boarding homes.

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