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Watertown City Council tries to ban roommates – but planning officials say measure is unenforceable

City of Watertown

The Watertown City Council has received a lot of pushback and even ridicule in the media recently for passing what's being referred to as a “roommate ban.” Last month, in response to a neighbor dispute, the City Council removed language from the zoning code that allowed the renting out of rooms in single-family homes. But city planning officials say the regulatory change is completely unenforceable.

Mayor Jeff Graham says Watertown's theoretical roommate ban started as a neighbor dispute.

“A Thompson Boulevard resident, Mrs. Cavallario, became angered or upset over her neighbors, because she felt there were too many cars parked there, there was too much activity, or they had a party one night,” he said. “And basically, it sort of trickled back to us on the idea that she didn't like the fact that there were people who weren't a basic, nuclear family living there.”

Deborah Cavallario's neighbors included homeowner Travis Hartman, his fiance and two friends, who all lived together in Hartman's home. Cavallario asked the City Council to do something to prevent people other than nuclear families from living in single-family homes in her neighborhood.

In February, the council responded. It passed a measure in a split vote that eliminated language in the zoning code that explicitly allowed the renting out of rooms in single-family homes in all residential areas of the city. Media started reporting that the city had passed a “roommate ban.” But, Mayor Graham said, “our city Planning Department said, 'Changing this really isn't going to have anything to do with the problem that Mrs. Cavallario brought forward.' Whether you like her problem or not, this would have nothing to do with it.”

That's because there's a catch. City planning officials say the council left intact the zoning code's very broad definition of a “family,” for the purpose of determining who can live in a single-family home. Up to four unrelated people can call themselves a family under the code. So, even the situation that upset Cavallario – Hartman and his fiance and friends all living together – would still be allowed, even now that the code doesn't allow the renting out of rooms.

That's because the city has no way of finding out who is paying who rent money. And even if more than four people live together in a single-family home, city planning officials say they aren't going to start doing DNA tests to determine who is related and who's not.

Mayor Graham voted against the measure to change the zoning code. Aside from its ineffectiveness, Graham said the measure “also carried with it at the time this notion of intolerance, you know, we want traditional families – mom and dad, Ozzie and Harriet, all of that – although that wasn't directly stated. I think it came out in the confrontation that Cavallario had with her neighbor.”

Meanwhile, the British newspaper the Daily Mail picked up the story and comedian Drew Cary even ridiculed the measure in a tweet.