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Debate on controversial zoning change ends with council vote

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The city closed the book on the roommate law debate Monday night with a 3-2 vote to keep the same zoning ordinance passed in February.

Three Watertown City Council members rejected an alternative suggested by Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham that would have addressed the controversy by reverting to the zoning ordinance’s original language with a slight variation.

And they decided to keep the zoning change related to roommates, which caused a public relations nightmare and brought accusations that city officials were trying to regulate lifestyles and living arrangements.

Joseph M. Butler Jr., Jeffrey M. Smith and Roxanne M. Burns voted against the mayor’s proposal. Joining Mr. Graham was Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso. None of the five discussed the issue before their vote.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s over,” Mr. Butler said afterward.

The so-called roommate law first came before the council in January, after a Thompson Boulevard resident complained that her neighbor was living with his fiancee and two friends. The engaged couple has since married. The neighborhood is made up of single-family houses and is zoned as a Residential A district.

To solve the issue, Mr. Graham suggested making a change to the definition of “family.” He proposed keeping language that would allow “any number of individuals living together as a single housekeeping unit.” But he suggested removing the following language: “to distinguish it from a club, fraternity, or boardinghouse, not more than four members of a family shall be other than blood relatives.”

During interviews with reporters after the meeting, Mr. Smith and Mr. Butler insisted that it was not a roommate law and that they never intended to prevent people from living together no matter what their marital status or situation. They were merely trying to protect Residential A neighborhoods from boarding and rooming houses.

Before the vote, two residents tried to persuade the council to get rid of the ordinance that was passed in February.

Danny M. Francis, Harris Drive, called it a mistake. He contended the three council members who voted for it in February should have changed their minds on Monday night.

“They have no spine, no backbone,” he said. “They didn’t want to admit they were wrong.”

He believes the issue stirred up so much interest in city government that four challengers jumped into this year’s council election and a primary to be held in September.

Council candidate Cody J. Horbacz, the only other speaker during the public hearing, said later that he was disappointed with the council’s decision.

“I think they had their minds made up beforehand,” he said.

On Monday night, the council also could have considered another alternative: what the city Planning Board approved earlier this month.

It dealt with the definition of what makes up a family, broadening it to basically any group of people who live and cook together in a household. It also would have differentiated between boarding houses and family dwellings.

But Mr. Butler and Mr. Smith said they have no plans to look at that version. It would take someone proposing the Planning Board’s version, they said.

“What we had before us was the mayor’s resolution,” Mr. Butler said.

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