Kevin Riordan: Home, suite home: Time for a little zoning flexibility

The Alessios hope to sell their Cherry Hill home, but it hasa "mother-in-law suite" now called illegal.
The Alessios hope to sell their Cherry Hill home, but it hasa "mother-in-law suite" now called illegal. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: February 04, 2013

Tom and Rita Alessio found out the hard way that adding a "mother-in-law suite" to one's home is a no-no in Cherry Hill.

They built the addition in 2007 so their grown daughter, Bernadette, could comfortably live under their roof.

Now the Alessios, who are in their 90s, want to sell their home in the township's Kingston section.

The snag: The single-story backyard extension for which they obtained municipal approvals is considered illegal because it has a full kitchen.

Prospective buyer Dorothy Leafey, 61, wants the kitchen so she can live independently; her son, John, 38, would reside in the original portion of the house. "This is ridiculous," she says.

"Cherry Hill has gone goofy or something," adds Tom Alessio, 93, a retired carpenter. "Somebody didn't know what they were doing."

"Miscommunication" may have led the township's zoning and code enforcement offices to separately sign off on the Alessios' applications in 2007, says Erin Gill, Cherry Hill's director of policy and planning. "Essentially there were two sets of plans."

"Nothing was misrepresented," insists Stuart Platt, a Stratford lawyer who previously represented the Alessios. "They filed a detailed architectural plan."

Cherry Hill ordinances lump "mother-in-law suites" with auto-salvage businesses, junkyards, and heliports as impermissible in residential areas. The township wants to prevent single-family homes from conversion into duplexes or rental apartments, which makes sense.

But the in-law ban is excessive - particularly given America's growing need for multigenerational living.

Such a ban "curtails the possibility of families being together," says Trudi Herman, founder and vice president of It Takes a Village-NJ, a grassroots organization in Moorestown that advocates aging-in-place rather than in institutions.

"There are definitely some municipalities that have found a successful middle ground" with such zoning issues, adds David C. Burdick, director of the Stockton Center for Successful Aging, at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

"The big picture is the aging of the 72 million baby boomers, and the fact that they had fewer children than their parents," Burdick adds. "We need to be open-minded and flexible as we adjust to this."

Gill insists Cherry Hill is flexible. A family can apply for a zoning variance for a home addition, and variances can carry conditions to prevent conversion of a single-family home into apartments.

The township is hardly trying to preserve itself in amber; commercial strips like Route 70 and Haddonfield Road are evolving dramatically to suit the needs of businesses. Why shouldn't neighborhoods evolve to meet the needs of people who live there?

"If a house can be changed so there are two separate living areas, it is so much easier to keep the [older person] independent, and out of a nursing home," Burdick says. "Quality of life is so much better if you're with your family but can have some separation from them."

Eager to sell, the Alessios have agreed to knock $6,000 off the price; the Leafeys have opted to remove the stove and cap the gas line. This will transform the kitchen into a "kitchenette," clearing the way for the township to certify the house as single-family to the mortgage company.

And Gill says Cherry Hill is willing to reexamine the ban if there's an uptick in requests for in-law suite variances.

"We haven't seen that," she says.

I wouldn't be surprised if they do.

Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at

comments powered by Disqus