Planning Board: mending a fence and a ‘derelict’ house

A weekly meeting of the Planning Board on Thursday, September 4, started at 7:30 pm in the northern first-floor meeting room at Town Hall. Reviews of seven property improvement applications were scheduled, a heavy workload. Summer is the busiest season for property improvements, and the board had not met the previous week. The board elected Linda Hamlin as chair and Steven Heikin as clerk for the coming year. Ms. Hamlin, an architect, may be the first woman to chair the Brookline Planning Board.

Fence viewer’s call: A dispute over the height of a fence took more time than any other case. The fence at issue was recently built between two properties along Dudley St. The owners of the fence applied for a special permit allowing extra fence height, after their neighbor complained that the fence was over seven feet tall–the maximum allowed for the zone in a side yard, when less than 20 feet from a lot line.

The area’s terrain retains more of its natural variations than urban Brookline, with occasional rises and valleys. Before installing the fence, its owners sought to stabilize a slope with a retaining wall, along or near the lot line. At maximum, that raised their land elevation about three feet above their neighbor’s land. After they installed a fence six or seven feet high, from the neighbor’s land it looked nine or ten feet high.

Brookline specifies that height of a fence or wall is measured “above the natural grade,” and the building inspector who looked at the site took that literally, finding that the top of the new fence rose to more than seven feet above undisturbed land–too high. Special permits for extra fence height are allowed “to mitigate noise or other detrimental impact or provide greater safety,” but none of those circumstances seemed to apply.

Robert L. “Bobby” Allen, Jr., a Brookline-based lawyer, Precinct 16 town meeting member and former chair of the Board of Selectmen, represented the fence owners. The neighbor brought along a landscape designer who had worked on the property but no lawyer. As they often do, board members tried to mediate, seeking some avenue toward agreement. This time, they could not pull it off.

The neighbor offered to meet with the fence owners again, but the owners said that had been tried and didn’t work. Mr. Allen, who handles many such cases with generally calm demeanor, seemed to be exasperated over this one. He couldn’t take it “offline.” Faced with the impasse, the Planning Board briefly reviewed the zoning and sided with the neighbor, recommending the Board of Appeals deny a special permit for extra fence height.

Appeals Board cases: Polly Selkoe, assistant director for regulatory planning at the Planning Department, introduced Jay Rosa to the board. Mr. Rosa has taken a new Planning Department position as zoning coordinator. He will assume duties from the town clerk’s office, following and reporting cases at the Zoning Board of Appeals. Earlier in the evening, Mr. Rosa had attended his first two cases, including a controversial “garage triangle” on Walnut Place.

The Appeals panel visited the site that morning. While there, according to panel member Mark Zuroff, they saw two large trucks make their way past two cars parked in the Walnut Place triangle. Panel members said they did not believe the proposed garage entrance would become a nuisance or serious hazard. They allowed the Upland Road applicants on the case to modify their garage so as to enter it from Walnut Place rather than Upland Road.

A ‘derelict’ house: Another case that proved controversial proposed to alter a house on Beaconsfield Road with a rear addition and both front and rear dormers. The house, in a T-6 two family district, is now a two-family and would remain one. However, the 4131 square feet of gross floor area would be increased well beyond the 4593 square feet normally allowed. To get such an increase requires design review, giving the Planning Board considerable scope.

Members of the Planning Board were appalled to hear that much of the house had been ripped apart, leaving a shell. A nearby resident said the house, with “hardly any work going on since spring, looks like a derelict [and] is very dangerous.” Ms. Hamlin asked, “Is this the new thing: we tear it apart and then ask for permits?”

Mr. Allen, also representing the property owner in this case, was quick to observe that work so far was done under a building permit and had not added new space to the house. One board member thought that the house was in a National Historic Register district, inhibiting demolition, but the Beaconsfield Terrace district starts to the west, toward Beacon St. While Brookline’s zoning is fairly strict about disturbing landscaping before design review, it does not forbid demolishing walls and floors.

Board members turned to the proposed design. Mark Zarrillo, the outgoing chair, said “it looks too bulky.” Mr. Heikin said the design was “out of scale [and] out of character with the surroundings.” According to Ms. Hamlin, “The existing houses have an intimate scale.” The proposed front dormer, she said, “totally overwhelms that house…the scale is wrong…you’ve eliminated any detail that gave it any charm.” The board continued the case and will review it again after the owner and his architect revise their plans.

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