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January 26, 2013

Struggle over illegal multi-unit homes

SALISBURY — “Buyer beware” would be a good policy to follow for prospective buyers wanting to purchase multi-family homes in town.

The reason for caution when shopping for a duplex or triplex or whatever-plex in Salisbury is that there just aren’t that many areas in town where multi-family homes are allowed by zoning. Aside from specific overlay districts, multi-family dwellings are legally allowed in the Beach Commercial District, according to Town Manager Neil Harrington.

But the situation is much more complex than that. Some multi-family homes located in zones that don’t allow them are legal, and some are not. Residences containing more than one dwelling that existed before Salisbury passed its zoning in 1978 remained legal because they were “grandfathered.” But those that were built after 1978 are not.

Grandfathering is the reason many multi-family homes exist at the beach, Harrington said, but some there could be illegal, and they’re turning up during inspections.

And sometimes dwellings in the overlay districts where they are allowed can be illegal because they don’t meet the minimum lot size and frontage requirements for multi-family homes.

More misleading still for some who buy multi-family homes without checking the zoning realities is that even if a home has been assessed and taxed as a multi-family for years, that doesn’t make it a legal multi-family. According to Salisbury chief assessor Cheryl Gorniewicz, assessing a building as a two-family home doesn’t reflect the legal use of the property, but only how the property exists.

Assessors don’t decide if an apartment is legal or illegal, Harrington said. It is the building inspector, who is the zoning enforcement officer in Salisbury, who makes that determination based on zoning requirements and when a property first became a multi-family home. But, unfortunately, more than one property owner in town learned the technicalities of Salisbury multi-family homes too late, after the purchase.

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