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‘Roommate law’ comes up again with SMC medical students housing

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Neighbors wondered why a group of doctors could move into a single-family house on Ward Street when it was is in a Residential A district and such a hoopla was recently made over the so-called roommate law.

Nova M. and Christian T. Schenk watched last week while furniture was moved into the single-family house at 115 Ward St. They became more curious when they learned that Samaritan Medical Center rented the four-bedroom house to accommodate third- and fourth-year medical students, Mrs. Schenk said.

“We had just read about that roommate law,” Mr. Schenk said.

For months, the Watertown City Council faced a backlash from its controversial amendment to the zoning law limiting the number of nonrelatives living together to four.

On Thursday, the city’s Code Enforcement Office received a complaint about the Ward Street house from Stewart E. Perkins, who lives across the street at 116 Ward St. He wanted to know why Samaritan was able to use the house for “a dormitory,” city officials said. Mr. Perkins declined to comment about his complaint on Monday.

While Mr. Perkins never mentioned the zoning change to the city, the controversy immediately came to mind with Mr. and Mrs. Schenk.

And the complaint created a stir for a couple of days with city officials, who had to figure out if the hospital could use the fully furnished house for the medical students and whether it came under the new zoning rule. Rooming and boarding houses, dormitories, fraternity houses and bed-and-breakfasts are not permitted in Residential A districts.

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.

Last week, the council voted to keep the zoning change, despite a public relations nightmare it caused along with accusations that city officials were trying to regulate lifestyles and living arrangements. And council members vowed the issue was over and would not come up again.

It has.

Code Enforcement Officer Shawn R. McWayne, the city attorney’s office and other city officials had to examine the Ward Street situation to determine whether the living arrangement would come under the zoning change.

If so, the hospital would have to find someplace else for the four medical students to live.

In the end, Mr. McWayne determined the living arrangement “appears to be authorized” under the city’s zoning laws, he wrote in a letter on Monday to Samaritan officials.

The four medical students are working on short-term rotations at the hospital before they make a decision on whether to attend SMC’s medical education residency program, according to a letter from Chris Bastien, the hospital’s assistant vice president for support services.

Samaritan officials found themselves looking for a new location because the lease for its current location, a 13-apartment building at 522 Washington St., will expire Aug. 31. So they went through Conley’s Rental Management and Real Estate, 451 Arsenal St., to find another place to rent. The students will move in after Sept. 1. The Ward Street house has been vacant since a military family moved out of the area this past winter, Mrs. Schenk said.

Samaritan spokeswoman Krista A. Kittle said the house could lead to physicians staying in Watertown to practice. At no time will more than four students be living there, according to the hospital. That was crucial in Mr. McWayne’s decision that it is permissible.

Both the city and the hospital dodged a bullet, solely because the situation involves fewer than five students living there.

“To distinguish a ‘family’ from a club, fraternity or boarding house, not more than four members of a family shall be other than blood relatives,” according to the current city zoning law on roommates.

Kenneth A. Mix, the city’s planning and community development coordinator, further explained that the house will be “a primary use” by the hospital, not an accessory use under the roommate law, so the medical students can live there. An accessory use would occur if the students and the owner lived in it; then the roommate law would apply, Mr. Mix explained.

“They are a family under the definition of a family,” Mr. Mix said.

If it was more than the four medical students, Mr. McWayne would have ruled the hospital could not use the house because it would then not meet the definition of family since they are not related, Mr. Mix said.

As for the Schenks, they don’t mind living next to a group of medical students.

“It’s a lot better than having 10 kids home alone next door and their parents are at work all day,” Mrs. Schenk said.

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