Planning Board: a house trying to eat a hill

A weekly meeting of the Planning Board on Thursday, August 21, started at 7:30 pm in the northern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Reviews of five property improvement applications were scheduled. A proposal to convert a single-family house at 227 Tappan St. to a two-family house drew strong neighborhood opposition.

SC districts: Many properties near the peak and on the south and east sides of Addington Hill are in types of zoning called SC-7 and SC-10. SC zoning was introduced in the early 1960s, when Brookline made its first major revisions to zoning since 1922. Single-family houses in SC districts can be converted to two-family with special permits approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The single-family property at 227 Tappan was bought by a developer this year, who applied for a conversion permit. Several such conversions have not aroused much controversy, because owners maintained the outlines of houses and added inconspicuous second entrances. In this case, however, the developer plans to add a large extension onto the rear of a two-story house, more than doubling the floor area.

House on a hill: Slopes along the south side of Addington Hill are among the steepest in Brookline. No cross street connects Tappan St. to Rawson Rd. uphill from it except Garrison Rd., in relatively flat territory near Beacon St. Several properties along the middle section of Tappan St., including the one at 227, have deep lots with steep, heavily forested slopes in back.

Robert L. “Bobby” Allen, Jr., a Brookline-based lawyer, Precinct 16 town meeting member and former chair of the Board of Selectmen, represented the developer–who also brought along an architect and a landscape designer. Comments from members of the Planning Board indicated they saw skilled and professional efforts to plan construction on the steep rear slopes, while largely maintaining current appearances from Tappan St.

It was just those factors that most alarmed neighbors. They presented a memorandum of objections, and several spoke out about their concerns. Construction plans call for a large excavation, probably scooping out several hundred cubic yards of Addington Hill and uprooting or disturbing mature trees. Big, deeply set retaining walls would be needed. The scale of land disturbance is rare except for major buildings and highways.

Objections: Next-door neighbors were upset about the potential for “shifting of the ground,” as one put it. “We’re going to end up with a cracked foundation,” he predicted. Drainage from Addington Hill onto Tappan St. has “a 50-foot head…[it] will flow onto adjacent properties” and may flood them. For those Tappan St. residents, it was “not a question of aesthetics but a serious structural problem.”

Other neighbors were concerned about a concentration of automobiles opposite the intersection of Tappan St. with Beaconsfield Rd. Based on parking designs, there can be five to seven instead of only one, they said. The neighbors said current driveways are hazards for children, especially during snow season, but the proposed one would be much worse. because of its location and the number of cars there.

Lee Cooke-Childs, a Precinct 12 town meeting member who lives on Rawson Rd., directly behind the Tappan St. property, objected to disturbing trees. It’s “a climax forest,” she said, asking whether “their excavation is going to threaten the roots of my trees.” Another resident, a few doors away on Tappan St., observed that “60 percent of the lot is flat…[yet] the plan will tunnel into the hill.”

Alex Coleman, a member of the Human Relations Commission who lives on the other side of of Tappan St., said neighbors were at work on a proposed zoning change for part of the SC-10 district. However, Dr. Coleman conceded such a change would come too late to prevent the development proposed for 227 Tappan St., if it were allowed by the Appeals board.

A skeptical board: After hearing from the neighborhood, Planning Board members began to express skepticism about the proposal. However, board member Steve Heikin said Brookline did not have much leverage over dimensions, since the plan observes Brookline limits for floor area and setbacks. He recalled a recent, large Toxteth St. development that needed no special permits, saying it had inspired a neighborhood conservation district enacted at the 2014 annual town meeting.

Board member Robert Cook was probably the most direct. “It’s way too big,” he said. Board member Linda Hamlin said she didn’t “think it meets community standards…asking for too much.” Board member Sergio Modigliani, an architect, said the plan was “a big reach, as much as possible inside that envelope.” Mark Zarrillo, the board’s chair and a landscape architect, summed up. “I can’t support this,” he said, “The project is too big.”

Faced with little or no support from Planning Board members, Mr. Allen looked for an alternative. “Maybe we could return on September 4,” he said, “Maybe we could come back with something like” what amounted to around a 20 percent smaller house. Mr. Zarrillo recommended the developer and his architect look into “extra height to avoid a larger footprint.”

The developer said he “would be willing to engage…if it was worthwhile.” Mr. Zarrillo responded, “You need to talk to the neighbors.” The developer said, “I’ve tried to have that conversation…only one person showed up.” Tentatively, the Planning Board scheduled another review for September 18 and continued the case without voting a recommendation.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, August 22, 2014

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