Caring for elderly parents: P&Z approves garage apartment

The challenge of caring for elderly parents came before the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Board at its Feb. 20 meeting in the form of an application to use a garage as a temporary apartment.

The board unanimously approved the special exception request of John and Kristin Conway to convert the two-car, two-story garage on the .28-acre property at 100 West River St., into a temporary apartment for her parents.

The board limited the use to parents and relatives by marriage, but not by adoption. The P&Z office will review the use every three years to make sure her parents are still living there, and can renew the approval if they are. The Conways agreed to abandon that use when they no longer require the accessory apartment.

Attorney Kevin Curseaden said the garage has a variance since 1975, allowing an engineering office on the second floor of the garage. Curseaden said the couple looked at a variety of options and felt this was the best one.

He said adding an accessory apartment to the existing house would require building an addition, involving tree removal, and increasing the amount of impervious surface on the site. A temporary health care structure would also more severely impact the neighbors, and has a potential issue with the historic district in which the property is located, said Curseaden.

“We believe this proposal has the least amount of impact to the lot, the neighbors, the neighborhood and the historic district, and quite frankly makes common sense,” said Curseaden.

Curseaden said zoning regulations allow residential use of an accessory structure by an employee for household and domestic management, but said there are no specific regulations to allow a disabled elderly family member to occupy the same space on that property.

Kristin Conway told the board that her parents have always lived in Central Pennsylvania and never had any intention of moving. Her sister took care of them, but following her death from cancer two years ago, her mother asked if they could move to Connecticut.

Conway said her 92-year-old father is a World War II veteran who has dementia and is mobility impaired. She said her mother has a form of lymphoma that makes it hard to take care of her father.

“An ADA compliant apartment in the garage makes the most sense. It is ground level. My house is three feet off the ground, and would require 30 feet of ramp,” said Conway. “It is a more temporary solution than building onto my house.”

Conway said with the accessory apartment, the couple would have space that at some point would no longer be needed. She said they want to have the least impact on the neighborhood.

She said the neighbor most impacted by the plan wrote a letter of support. No one spoke in favor of the proposal at the public hearing, but an adjoining neighbor was opposed, expressing concern that this approval would set a precedent in the historic district.

Michele Kramer of 104 West River St. said she did not doubt the Conway’s sincerity in wishing to take care of their parents and in stipulating a three-year period.

“My concern is this is a historic neighborhood with many deep lots with carriage barns and garages,” said Kramer. “The prior owners built the addition over the garage for their parent. My concern is if my neighbors decide to move, this could be construed as income producing.”

City Planner David B. Sulkis said if the board did not approve this, then the Conways could take advantage of the state law for temporary health care structures.

“They can plop down a structure on their property that will make the historic district go, ‘Oh well,’” said Sulkis.

The board voted 5-5 at its Feb. 6 meeting to opt out of the new state law that would allow this. Since the vote was a tie, the result was that the board is recommending opting in to the law.