Acton on accessory dwelling units

Organizing for town meeting can make the difference between celebrating a victory—or waiting two years to make your case again.

“Detached” accessory units model allowed in Acton

That’s one major lesson from Acton, where local organizers were happy that expanding the town’s accessory dwelling bylaw got 89% of the vote in support three years after a similar effort failed.

The winning proposal allows new “detached” accessory units that are 500 square feet or less to be created by right and updates zoning for accessory units within existing structures such as a garage or barn. The new detached units are what many call a “tiny home” on a foundation. Only 16 of 100 communities in Metro Boston (excluding Boston itself) allow detached accessory units of any kind.

“This will make a real difference for some residents, particularly those whose financial situation or disability would make it hard to stay in town without this option,” said Franny Osman, a former Selectman active in Housing for All, a resident group formed last year.

The story begins in 2016, when the planning board recommended that new detached accessory units be allowed. Acton already had a fairly liberal bylaw, allowing accessory units within the main structure of a single family home and allowing owners to rent them out. According to a 2018 study by researcher Amy Dain, only 37 of 100 Metro Boston communities allow such rentals.

The Acton planning board in 2016 reasonably assumed that presenting a good policy case at town meeting would be enough to reach the 2/3 majority needed for a zoning change. After all, the town’s housing production plan recommended allowing smaller ADUs to meet the desire of many residents to downsize and age in place. The Board of Selectmen had recommended the proposal.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

Franny Osman

Osman remembers that the first unsuccessful vote took place late in an exhausting town meeting, with disparate items debated. One negative comment seemed to sway voters. As a result, the measure won a majority but not the required two-thirds vote needed to pass.

The turnaround effort in 2019 was led by Housing for All, and supported by the town’s Commission on Disability, Green Acton, and other organizations. Bob Van Meter, chair of Housing for All, said that Commission members were instrumental in making accessory units one of the group’s first priorities.

There was always a strong rationale for expanding the town’s treatment of small, detached ADUs—Acton has a large and growing senior population—but it didn’t hurt that Housing for All included the issue in a series of town forums it organized during the winter. CHAPA, the statewide housing advocacy organization, supported Housing for All in its early days and helped bring outside speakers. Housing for All later circulated a fact sheet on the ADU proposal as well as on a town meeting article that would encourage new development in Kelley’s Corner, a small village area in town.

Similarly, the Commission on Disabilities held a discussion of various disability-related warrant articles before town meeting and passed out cards with recommended votes.

Van Meter and Osman said Housing for All’s strength comes not so much from the number of active members (about 25) but the fact that so many members belong to other Acton organizations. The web of relationships made it easier to do a robust turnover effort as town meeting approached. It helped that the Kelley's Corner issue brought out voters interested in development issues.

On town meeting night, Ray Yacouby, the planning board chair, presented a strong case for small, detached ADUs, and cited statistics from Newton and Ipswich to show that the town would not be overwhelmed by the new units. Other speakers argued that the bylaw change would help aging Acton residents stay in town. This time, the vote left housing, environmental, and age-friendly activists happy.

Next up on Housing for All’s agenda: inclusionary zoning.

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