Hancock man seeks options for yurts after town shutdown

  • Inside Dan’s yurt. June 7, 2021 Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton—

  • Dan, a disabled veteran, outside the yurt he currently uses as a daytime hangout after the Town of Hancock barred overnight use of the structure. Abbe Hamilton / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • The stovepipe and skylight in the ceiling of a Hancock yurt. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 6/18/2021 7:39:13 PM

A Hancock landowner is working with the town to negotiate a legal use for the two Mongolian-style yurts on his property after town officials ordered that using the structures for housing violates zoning code.

Landowner Paul Mellion erected the first of his two 400-square-foot yurts in 2018, with insulated floors, canvas walls and double-layer roofs, frames made of locally harvested timber, wood stoves for heat, and composting toilets in small adjacent structures. The yurts were made in Acworth for about $50,000 apiece, and went up in a single-day barn-raising style event with help from community members and friends, Mellion said.

Mellion and his longtime friend Glenn Stover are eager to find compliant ways to use the yurts as studios or workshops, and hope their journey might change how alternative structures might fit into affordable housing solutions, as they’re deeply concerned about the region’s housing crisis and its eventual impacts on Hancock’s community.

“It’s easy to say no,” to an alternative structure like a yurt, Mellion said, in no small part because they aren’t addressed in the state’s building code, but he believes there’s room to create those standards.

Mellion bought his house and 70 acres of woodland on Depot Road in Hancock in 1979, the same year he befriended Stover. Together, the two founded Birch Circle Adventures, a California-based wilderness expedition company that took thousands of international students whitewater rafting, hiking, and on other outdoor adventures over the years. Mellion alternated between living in Hancock and California over the years, and the two rented out the Hancock house as an AirBnB for three years before Mellion moved back full-time in the spring of 2018.

In 2018, Mellion became the legal guardian of Dan, a 58-year-old family friend and disabled veteran who lives with Tourette’s Syndrome.

“I won’t last more than a year in an institution … it would crush my spirit,” Mellion recalled Dan telling him, asking to instead join Mellion in New Hampshire.

That January, Mellion and Stover started the process of building a yurt so that Dan could have space of his own. A representative from the Veterans Administration inspected the yurt after it was constructed to ensure it met Dan’s basic needs, Stover said. Shortly after, Mellion and Stover agreed to take in Jamie, a second family friend with mental health challenges. He stayed for two years, during which he worked at the Peterborough Diner and the Hancock Inn, they said. Life on the quiet, forested property, and a structured daily routine appears to provide a healthy environment for people with developmental or mental health disabilities, Mellion said. “It’s nature therapy: gathering and splitting wood, repairing stone walls, gardening,” he said. “the simplicity, back to basics.”

“Individuals living here at Birch Circle have what many of us have from time to time – mental disturbances – theirs are just more chronic,” Stover said. “Our internal struggles, maybe related to a job or a relationship, can sometimes feel like wrestling with smoke. Here in nature we find the good struggle ... one you can put your hands on,” Stover said. Mellion and Stover soon decided to become state-certified Health Care Coordinators and Medicine Administrators through Monadnock Worksource.

According to documents provided by the Town of Hancock, Mellion requested a building permit from Hancock as he was building the first yurt. He received one in January 2018 from then- Building Inspector/Code Enforcement Officer Dario Carrara which indicated it was a permanent accessory building to the single family residence, and that it needed to meet snow load standards to allow for winter use, according to documents obtained from the Town of Hancock. In 2019, while reviewing permits to install electricity and a chimney in the yurt, Building Inspector Ryan Brautovich inspected the fully furnished structure, which included a two beds at the time, according to a letter to Hancock from Mellion’s representative, Tom Hanna. After that inspection, Brautovich rescinded the previous building permit, writing that he determined the structure was a tent, and therefore did not need one.

“Currently, there is no further action necessary, regarding the above-mentioned structure,” he wrote, according to documents obtained from the town.

With that understanding, Mellion built a second yurt during the summer of 2020, envisioning it as a studio space.

“Since the second yurt was identical to the first, Mr. Mellion reasonably concluded that he did not need a building or zoning permit for the second yurt,” Hanna wrote in a letter to Hancock. However, after Mellion requested a permit to install an in-ground propane tank on site last year, Code Enforcement Officer Tim Herlihy issued a cease-and-desist order that called for an immediate stop to using the yurts as dwellings, according to Hancock’s documents. At the time, Dan and another man in Mellion and Stover’s care were living in one yurt, and a family friend was using the other rent-free, Mellion and Stover said. “It has become apparent to us that the intended use of the yurt structure has changed from a [sic] accessory structure to an accessory dwelling,” the Select Board wrote to Mellion’s representative in December 2020.

During the ongoing negotiations with the town since the initial order, Mellion got approved to add two bedrooms and a bath to the main house to better accommodate the people he cares for, now that they’ve agreed to stop using the yurts as sleeping spaces. The town is waiting to receive the correct permits so the yurts are properly permitted for day use, Town Administrator Jonathan Coyne said. There is no current discussion about the process that would be needed to allow sleeping in the yurts, Coyne said when asked for an update on the permitting process.

Although yurts are comparatively inexpensive to build and variations have been used worldwide for thousands of years, existing building codes may present significant obstacles to establishing their permitted use as dwellings.

“There are no provisions for the use of a Yurt for a residence in the Building Code or Land Use Code,” Jaffrey Building Inspector and Code Enforcement Officer Rob Deschenes wrote in an email forwarded to Herlihy in 2020, according to documents obtained from the Town of Hancock. Deschenes detailed that, in order to meet residential standards, a yurt needs to be a demonstrably permanent structure, withstand wind speeds up to 115 miles per hour and snow loads of up to 80 pounds per square foot, have an up-to-standard primary heating source, and include a water closet, lavatory, bathtub or shower, and kitchen area with a sink, with all plumbing hooked up to a sanitary sewer or an approved private sewer disposal system.

Mellion said he knows several people who have tried to live in yurts in surrounding towns, only to have to pack up due to code issues. “No one’s trying to break the law,” he said, but there’s clearly demand for them as affordable, hospitable dwelling options. The yurts on Mellion’s property have stood up well to wind storms, snow, and cold since their construction, he said, noting that the state itself rents out yurts for camping.

It’s Mellion and Stover’s top priority to use their property and its buildings to serve the community however they can, they said. Recently, that’s included housing people with disabilities, providing space in a yurt for a small group of schoolchildren to learn during the pandemic, and helping out a local business startup. They’ve recently been in talks with the DHHS about taking on a third person with disabilities, Mellion said.

“We’re brainstorming usage all the time,” Stover said, including what will happen to the property after they’re gone. “I don’t want to sell this house… I want it to be passed on and used,” Mellion said, toward means that protect the adjacent Harris Center Super Sanctuary and the community’s health. “[I’m] extremely hopeful about the future of the yurts and the peaceful resolution with our community, Hancock. We see the yurts as magical, environmentally friendly studio spaces, to share with creative minds.”




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