EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Mayor Bob DaSilva’s latest home-improvement project is a hot topic in East Providence, where residents are scratching their heads over why his so-called “garden shed” is two stories tall and being outfitted with a bathroom, shower and washer-dryer.
The mayor pushed back on the criticism in an interview with 12 News, saying any residential property owner in a similar zoning area could build the same structure legally under current zoning and building ordinances. But he acknowledged his long-term goal is to convert the building into an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU.
“The intent of it is really to be a garden shed, but there will be a bathroom in it,” he said. “And we designed it in such a way that if in the future if something should be changed in the law at the state level, or something else, we can convert it into an ADU.”
Currently, state law prohibits standalone accessory dwelling units — sometimes called in-law or granny flats — but state leaders have suggested expanding the law will be a focus of next year’s legislative session. The House passed an ADU bill this year, but it died in the Senate.
“My hope is that some day in the future the state of Rhode Island will allow for the detached accessory dwelling unit – there is a housing shortage,” he said, emphasizing that he won’t be using the structure for residential purposes until that time comes.
The mayor is calling the structure a “she-shed,” or a “cabana,” which don’t show up in a word search of the city’s ordinances. And residents have been raising concerns about the project because DaSilva pulled permits to build a “garden shed.”
According to city ordinances, garden sheds can be up to 20 feet tall and feature showering and dressing areas so long as it’s not for residential purposes.
DaSilva is adamant he’s following the rules, saying he discussed the idea with the city’s building and zoning officials to ensure he wouldn’t be breaking any ordinances. He also hired an architect to design the building, saying he directed the firm to ensure the project followed all the rules because “everyone’s eyes are on me.”
“I know that I’m a public figure,” he said. “I want to make sure I follow the rules.”
But the project isn’t passing the smell test for some residents, including Lynn Miller, who said she’s concerned the mayor is getting preferential treatment – in part because the man who approved his building and plumbing permits is also his employee.
“If I were going to build something like that at my house, I’d be stopped in a minute,” Miller said. “They were signed off by his employees. That’s a conflict of interest. How do you tell your boss, ‘No’? You can, but then you’re in for a bumpy road.”
The criticism has swelled online, where the mayor acknowledged a Facebook group dedicated to debating his actions has seen plenty of jabs at his garden shed. The mayor said he’s becoming concerned about his family’s privacy after seeing drones flying over his home, along with cars stopping on the street and people hopping out to take a closer look.
“It makes you feel uneasy because there are some whack jobs out there and some people who are not stable and capable of doing bad stuff,” he said.
The criticism has largely been focused on the mayor’s permits. DaSilva estimated it would cost about $25,000 to build the structure and another $7,000 for the plumbing. The plumbing work includes the installation of “one toilet, vanity, shower, washer & dryer, laundry sink and one outside faucet,” according to the permit.
“The next step will be to bring electricity to the structure,” DaSilva said, adding that he’ll take out a permit for that work too.
“The reality is that it’s all within the city’s ordinances and zoning,” he said. “This is not the first cabana shed built in the city.”
Until the laws change, DaSilva said his wife plans to use the first floor for her garden equipment, while he plans to use the second floor for storage so he can clear out his garage. The bathroom, he said, will only be used for outdoor parties or whenever someone doesn’t want to go back into the house.
“It’s going to get used exactly as we permitted it,” he said. “If you want to come back in a few months and you catch people living in the house, then you can get me on a ‘got you.’”
The mayor was also critical of the people making an issue out of the structure, even saying he doesn’t understand why a news organization would cover it.
“You’re taking people’s opinions and you’re making a story,” he said.
Still, the mayor suggested the state should “come up with some common-sense policy that would allow people to have detached accessory dwelling units so you can have an in-law or somebody come live with you on your property.”
“I think that’d be a good idea,” he added.
But Miller argued that if the mayor wants to build a house, he should follow the rules to build a house, while if he wants to build a garden shed, he should do that.
“That is not a garden shed,” Miller said. “We have a shed. I’m telling my husband he built it all wrong because it doesn’t have a washer and dryer in there.”