Zoning Board of Appeals: quests for parking and permits

The Zoning Board of Appeals held hearings on Thursday, February 26, for two complex property improvement cases involving off-street parking. Assigned to the hearings were board members Mark Zuroff, a lawyer serving as chair, Christopher Hussey, an architect, and Avi Liss, a lawyer.

Alley conflict: A proposed 4-car garage behind 1471 Beacon St. had wound through two Planning Board hearings and a previous Appeals hearing. The apartment building suffered a major fire a few years ago and has now been largely rebuilt. Previously it had only informal parking on an alley in the back. The developer, who is selling units as condominiums, wanted to create deeded parking in a small garage, adjacent to the alley.

He had originally proposed five spaces, but tight spacing and access led to criticism at Planning and Appeals, and he returned with a proposal for four spaces. Neighbors along Beacon St. seemed satisfied with the changes. Neighbors behind on Griggs Terrace–a private way–were definitely not happy, and they spoke in opposition.

The legal alley access is from the narrow, sloping Intervale Crosscut, connecting Beacon St. with Griggs Rd. about a tenth of a mile toward the west. Neighbors claimed the alley will often be blocked, and vehicles will trespass on drives connecting to Griggs Terrace.

Land adjacent to the row of apartments near 1471 Beacon forms a steep slope in back, descending around ten feet to about the elevation of Griggs Park. The terrain was created in late-nineteenth century as a part of historic Beacon St. apartment development. Dense vegetation, including large trees, has helped to control storm run-off and restrain the slope from erosion.

The developer proposed to excavate a wedge-shaped segment of the steep slope and install a concrete garage structure with thick supporting and retaining walls and a buried drywell to manage storm water. On top, he proposed to create a landscaped terrace, to compensate for removing trees. The floor of the garage was to be level with the alley.

The developer needed special permits for smaller setbacks than standard zoning and for design review of a structure along Beacon St. With four rather than five cars, the dimensions did not need a variance–usually much harder to justify. That such a complex and costly plan appeared practical indicates the high prices being paid for parking in urban areas of Brookline.

Neighbors said they had been alienated by the developer’s conduct during about three years of construction. The alley is a composite of small parcels, with mutual rights-of-way deeded to and used by many of the owners of adjacent property. During construction, they said, equipment and materials had been stationed in the alley, trespassing on their property and that of others and interfering with access.

Neighbors asked for an enforceable permit condition specifying that the alley would not be blocked again. After about an hour and a half of testimony and wrangling among board members, the Appeals panel voted to grant the permits needed for the garage, attaching several conditions, including provisions intended to help neighbors stop potential obstruction of the alley in the future.

Neighborhood conservation: Renovation and expansion of a house at 66 Perry St. has involved a wide range of issues, including parking. This has been the first Brookline property improvement proposed in a neighborhood conservation district, and the Appeals board is not the last stop on the line. By the time the case is finished, reviews will probably total almost a year.

After a six-year study, Brookline created its first neighborhood conservation district in the fall of 2011, for Hancock Village in south Brookline. So far, that has not generated any cases. In spring, 2014, another district was approved at town meeting, involving parts of Toxteth St., Perry St. and Aspinwall Ave. These districts are intended to extend property regulation beyond traditional zoning to help maintain neighborhood characteristics more complex than property uses and dimensions.

Boston enacted an “architectural conservation district” in 1975. Cambridge created its first “neighborhood conservation district” in 1984 and now has five districts. Other Massachusetts communities with similar regulation include North Andover, Amesbury, Lexington, Lincoln and Wellesley. There is no Massachusetts enabling law for this type of regulation. Each community using it has created its own ordinances or bylaws, justified under the general “police power” of cities and towns. Brookline’s approach creates a separate bylaw for each district.

Without an enabling law and an accumulation of case law, communities have to develop their own standards and procedures. One reason reviews of the proposed property improvements at 66 Perry St. have taken so long is that the boards involved have been working out the process–more or less on-the-fly. It looks likely to be a typical case in that both zoning and neighborhood conservation regulations apply.

The Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, established in the 1920s, review the zoning issues, while a new Neighborhood Conservation District Commission reviews issues for which it is named. There is considerable potential for overlap; that occurred with 66 Perry St. So far, the commission held two hearings, the Planning Board two and Zoning Board of Appeals one.

First commission case: After the property owner had settled on a design, following commission review, the Planning Board urged changes. The owner made those changes in plans and went to the Appeals board, seeking special permits for setbacks smaller than standard zoning. The need for the permits had been driven partly by trying to keep expansions from intruding into the front yard, in order to satisfy Neighborhood Conservation.

The Appeals board voted to approve the special permits, but now the owner must return to the Neighborhood Conservation District Commission. The plans approved by Planning and Appeals differ from those previously approved by the commission. With luck, that will be the last stop. Thanks to a cooperative owner, this project looks likely to reach a successful outcome.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, February 27, 2015


Neighborhood conservation district study, Brookline Department of Planning and Community Development, September, 2005

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