Planning Board: house improvements and a common driveway

A weekly meeting of the Planning Board on Thursday, May 1, started at 7:00 pm in the northern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Topics were four applications to the Board of Appeals for exceptions from zoning requirements. This was a typical working session for the Planning Board and Department, who sometimes act as mediators in issues involving Brookline real estate.

When a property owner or an architect, a contractor or a landscaper working for one wants to build, demolish or make changes on a Brookline property, a first effort is often to seek a building permit. The Building Department checks proposed plans against the town’s regulations. When there is a zoning, neighborhood conservation, environmental conservation or historic preservation issue, an applicant will get a referral to the Planning Department, the Neighborhood Conservation District Commission, the Conservation Commission or the Preservation Commission. There are occasionally proposals involving more than one review.

The four proposals reviewed on May 1 were to build a porch, replace a garage, add a new entry way and install a common driveway for more than one dwelling, Each proposal needs approval for some exception to zoning requirements and should soon go to the Zoning Board of Appeals. The appeals board looks to the Planning Board and Department to evaluate a proposal and sometimes to negotiate a satisfactory approach.

At 45 School St., the applicant seeks to build a new back porch, but there is an issue with minimum depth of the rear yard–a so-called “setback” requirement for the T-6 two-family zone. The Planning Board found the proposal reasonable in light of circumstances and is recommending approval to the appeals board.

At 87 Colchester St., a homeowner wants to replace an existing garage but proposes the new one be attached to the adjacent house rather than free-standing. That means the replacement will not be “grandfathered” under zoning, because it is considered a different type of structure having different “setback” requirements within the S-10 single-family zone. However, the new garage is designed to match the appearance of the house, with stucco rather than metal sides and with tile coping around its roof.

Several neighbors came to the hearing to support the proposal. Those included Fred Lebow, a former Massachusetts general contractor, former Brookline town meeting member and former resident of Colchester St., who said he traveled from New Hampshire to speak in favor of the proposal. The Planning Board is recommending approval to the appeals board. However, the property is located in an area of historical interest, listed on the National Register. An application to demolish the existing garage will need to be submitted to the Preservation Commission, and there could be a delay of up to 18 months.

At 17 Baker Circle, a homeowner wants to add a new entry way and extend the room above it. The small amount of added floor space would make the “floor area ratio” to the lot area become 0.36, as compared with a maximum of 0.35 for the S-7 single-family zone. The Planning Board found the proposal reasonable in light of circumstances and is recommending approval to the appeals board.

To the south of houses at 21 and 39 Sears Rd. is an expanse of unbuilt land that belongs to owners of the houses. The total lot area of about 621,000 square feet–where there are now two houses–could be enough to satisfy land area requirements for about 15 detached, single-family houses, even though the S-40 single-family zoning district has Brookline’s lowest residential density.

A developer seeks to install a common driveway that could serve five additional houses. It was not clear how much of the land the developer is including in sites to build housing and how much of that is actually eligible for the use. Parts of the area appear to be wetlands and may be subject to conservation restrictions. Questions from the Planning Board brought out that the land has not yet been “replatted”–subdivided into lots for houses. It was not known whether requirements of the Massachusetts subdivision control law would apply–Sections 81K through 81GG in Chapter 41 of the General Laws.

If the developer goes ahead with the proposal, it might require subdivision of land into at least five new lots, each enough for a detached, single-family house. The developer might otherwise invoke so-called “cluster zoning” to build attached or semi-detached houses–Section 5.11 in Brookline’s Zoning Bylaw. An appropriate configuration for a common driveway could depend on the approach chosen.

Planning Board members seemed puzzled at lack of project definition, but their questions were oblique. Polly Selkoe, the department’s assistant director for regulatory planning, was more direct, saying, “It doesn’t make sense to put a common driveway in an area that’s not yet a subdivision.”

Neighbors were clearly unhappy. Joseph Freeman of Lee St. compared the proposal with what he called “pork-chop development” outside Brookline. He said the proposal “does not meet requirements for the special permit” and called to the Planning Board’s attention a special permit application “denied ten years ago because of lack of appropriate access.”

Robert Allen, Jr., a Brookline lawyer, represented some abutters. Mr. Allen said that the application “should trigger subdivision control laws” and that “problems with conservation zoning have not been resolved.” Like others, he criticized vague plans, saying Brookline has never allowed a common driveway “without knowing where that drive is going.”

Mr. Allen and several neighbors said no meetings had been organized by the developer about the proposal in the neighborhood. Mark Zarrillo, an architect who chairs the Planning Board, announced that the review would continue at a future meeting. He recommended the developer meet with neighbors about the proposal.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, May 2, 2014

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