Big battle for a tiny house

Sarah Hastings ’15 built her tiny house as part of her senior thesis at Mount Holyoke. Photo: John Martins

By Sasha Nyary 

When it came time to find a permanent home for the tiny house she’d built as part of her senior thesis, Sarah Hastings ’15 had done her homework. 

She had explored a half dozen communities in the Pioneer Valley. She had talked to building and zoning inspectors, and pored over town bylaws and mission statements. She had called officials on the state level, all in search of a location for her 190-square-foot, wood-framed house, built on a flatbed trailer. 

Hastings felt confident about her choice to locate her tiny house in Hadley. A few weeks after she graduated from Mount Holyoke College, she drove her house to the backyard of some friendly organic farmers on East Street and hooked up a hose for water. She was home. 

Little did she know, her education was just beginning. 

Over the next ten months, Hastings would face a zoning board hearing, a planning committee meeting, 400 Hadley residents at town meeting, and far more coverage in the press than she felt comfortable with. All to decide the fate of her tiny house. 

A tiny house journeys to Hadley 

Hastings came to Mount Holyoke College from her hometown of Braintree because of its architectural studies program, which became her major. She also brought a strong interest in environmental studies and minored in that. As a first-year student, she learned about the tiny house movement and decided to build one with the intention of living in it. 

Hastings knew she wanted to stay in the Pioneer Valley. “There’s a strain of progressive attitudes throughout this area,” she said. “And I’m in love with the landscape.” 

Tiny houses fall into a gray area when it comes to zoning laws and building codes. So Hastings chose a few towns and researched their rules to determine how receptive they might be toward what are known as accessory, or backyard, apartments. She talked to building officials and housing inspectors. 

“I also looked at their community values and at what the neighborhoods were like,” she said. 

Some officials had heard about tiny houses, but none of their towns had zoning laws that addressed them specifically. 

And then Hastings came to Hadley. After reading the town’s long-term management plan, she saw real possibility. She knew the town valued farmland preservation. And she learned that many residents are over 50 years old and live in large homes. Backyard apartments seemed like a good fit. 

She found her landlords by flyering the neighborhood. She asked all the immediate neighbors how they felt about her living there and no one objected. 

“I thought it really seemed like a place that might welcome something like this,” she said. “People seemed open to new ideas and sustainability. It seemed like it might work out.”

Turning a zoning violation into an opportunity 

In June 2015, Hastings moved her house from Mount Holyoke to Hadley, knowing that her new hometown allowed residents to have a temporary structure on their property for 90 days. She used that time to continue her research.

In October, she learned that she was to be cited for a zoning violation when a local newspaper reporter called her to say someone had complained about her tiny house. The official violation notification followed shortly after and she went to the zoning board with a proposal.

“I asked, ‘May I stay a few months longer, because I know town meeting is coming up and I’d like to propose a bylaw that might account for this,’ ” Hastings said. 

The Zoning Board of Appeals agreed to delay enforcement of the violation notice until the day after the annual town meeting in May 2016. 

The road to the town meeting vote 

Hastings had never written a zoning bylaw but she’d read lots of them. So she drafted an amendment to the town’s accessory-apartment bylaw to include backyard cottages and ran it by an attorney. She knew that homeowners feel strongly about land-use and zoning laws, so she wrote her proposal keeping in mind every possible concern. 

And the media was paying attention. The local press, including the Daily Hampshire Gazette, MassLive, and WWLP-22 News, reported the story. Reading about her project in outside sources was also educational for Hastings. 

“I was learning a lot more about Hadley, based on the media coverage and the response to my house,” she said. “I was seeing outright criticism of it, based on the process and even the concept of backyard apartments, which planning experts support as sustainable development.” 

Hastings felt tremendous support from many residents and those in the tiny-house community, but she knew she might not be able to convince everyone. 

“I felt confident enough that if it didn’t work out, I still have my house and I still have these values that stand up,” she said. “I’d come back home to my tiny house after meetings and conferences and feel at peace, knowing that this is the model that I really need, something so simple, just a very basic need.”

Hastings submitted her proposal in January 2016 for Hadley’s annual town meeting on May 5. While she waited, she conducted her own outreach by giving well-attended public talks about her tiny house and sustainability as well as at workshops and conferences. 

In April, she appeared at a public meeting before the planning board to present her amendment. The board declined to make a recommendation and forwarded the proposal to the upcoming town meeting.

On the night of town meeting, the proposal was the last article on the agenda. Residents spoke passionately for it, but in the end the vote was 215 against to 102 in favor.

“A third of the people who stayed until nearly midnight at town meeting voted yes,” Hastings noted. “And while I did need two-thirds, it was so meaningful to me to see that.” 

The media coverage went from local to international after the Associated Press picked up the story of the failed amendment. 

Hastings now is using her experience to educate others about how to navigate planning and zoning laws. She is the co-coordinator of the Legalized Tiny Project under the Millennial Housing Lab at Harvard University and is considering a graduate degree in geography. 

She remains confident that she will find a place to relocate her tiny house. “I’ve had planners from other towns tell me, ‘We allow certain alternative things, maybe we could have a conversation,’ ” she said. 

When she does find a place, she’s definitely not telling anyone where it is.

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