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City of Watertown Planning Board unexpectedly debates ‘roommate law’

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The only city Planning Board member who voted against the controversial zoning change pertaining to roommates still doesn’t know why the issue came up.

Planning Board member William R. Davis Jr. also isn’t so sure that making further changes is the right thing to do.

Mr. Davis made his comments during Tuesday’s Planning Board meeting after Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham asked board members to revisit the so-called roommate law following a torrent of criticism it received from people who believed city leaders were trying to regulate lifestyles and living arrangements.

“You already made a mistake and you don’t want to make another mistake,” he said.

But fellow Planning Board member Lawrence J. Coburn contended the mayor was “just trying to fix” the problem.

Instead of amending the changes to the city’s ordinance pertaining to roomers living in single-family homes in residential neighborhoods, Mr. Davis suggested it might be better to go back to the ordinance’s original language because it was never an issue in the past.

“Why fix it if it never was broken?” Mr. Davis wondered.

Going into Tuesday’s meeting, the board was going to begin the process of revisiting the issue and not discuss it at length. At the beginning of the meeting, Kenneth A. Mix, the city’s planning and community development coordinator, told board members they should “get the ball rolling” and then discuss it further in May.

Despite those plans, Mr. Davis expressed his views at length, while the other Planning Board members looked uncomfortable while he continued to discuss it.

The issue first came before the city’s Planning Board in January after a Thompson Boulevard homeowner, Deborah A. Cavallario, complained her neighbor was living with his fiancée and two friends in a single-family home in a Residential A district.

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. He recently married his fiancée.

In a 6-1 vote, the Planning Board removed the language pertaining to roomers, with Mr. Davis voting against it. In February, the Watertown City Council passed it, with Mayor Graham and Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso opposing it. As a result of the change, no transient roomers are allowed to live in Residential A districts.

To quell the controversy, the mayor suggested last month to restore a sentence council members removed that allowed “no more than four transient roomers” and applied to “accessory uses in residential districts.”

In addition to putting that language back in the city’s zoning code, Mr. Graham suggested looking at another section pertaining to the definition of family. He has proposed keeping language that would allow “any number of individuals living together as a single housekeeping unit.” But he suggested removing the following language: “to distinguish it from a club, fraternity, or boardinghouse, not more than four members of a family shall be other than blood relatives.”

Supporters have vehemently defended the change, contending the media blew the issue out of proportion. They also argued they were trying to protect Residential A districts from boarding and rooming houses.

But the issue has become a public relations problem that brought dozens of people to council meetings and turned into a subject of social media criticism as far away as California, eliciting a scathing Twitter comment from comedian and game show host Drew Carey.

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