Newton residents pack Zoning Board of Appeals meeting on building permits
Newton -Nearly 100 people crowded into a hearing room in City Hall Thursday evening for a meeting of the Zoning Board of Appeals that lasted more than four hours.What drew them there was a contentious debate about whether new homes should be allowed in Newton when they're built on "nonconforming" lots, those smaller than 10,000 square feet.
A decision by the ZBA could affect more than 350 landowners in the city with lots that are nonconforming.
The city made exceptions to the 10,000-square-foot zoning ordinances in 2001 in order to "grandfather" in older homes and lots that didn't meet those restrictions. But the devil has turned out to be the details, with those zoning changes now being fought over.
One side claims that the changes to the zoning rules were clearly meant to apply only to existing homes. The other faction interprets them as allowing for the construction of new homes on smaller lots.
In 2009, the city's Inspectional Services Department issued building permits for several lots in Newton that were undersized. But a state Land Court ruled that the permits were not legal. Last week, on February 22, a state Appeals Court upheld the court's decision, overturning a decision by the city’s Inspectional Services Department to allow a building permit on a nonconforming property at 31 Bradford Road. The city had been waiting for that ruling before issuing any more permits for undersized lots.
On Thursday evening, both proponents and opponents of the state's ruling gathered to argue whether or not the city should also revoke the buildings permits issued for 18 and 26 Goddard Street, where construction is well underway.
“In our 2001 ruling we were trying to deal with homes where people had lived for decades," said Brian Yates, then chairman of the city's Zoning and Planning Committee, when a task force was created to try to clarify inconsistencies in the zoning ordinances. “The legislative intent is clear: these new buildings are illegal."
Former alderman George Mansfield, who chaired of the city's Land Use Committee for six years, also spoke in support of overturning the building permits.
Opponents of the state's rulings argue that the owners and developers of the nonconforming properties acted in good faith, were issued permits, and now will suffer financial losses.
"I ask myself: Why am I here?" said Scott Cusick, one of the two developers of the two properties on Goddard Street. "I followed the rules and laws. At no time did I hide my intentions. I put up fences and landscaping--it was quite evident that building was going to happen."
Several abutters to the new construction at Goddard Street stood and spoke, arguing that they had not been given adequate notice of the building permits and that the new buildings were too big.
"They tower above the other homes," said Alan Filzer, who lives at 27 Goddard Street. "They are skyscrapers of four stories, since there's a garage on the bottom floor."
The new homes are each around 2,500-3,000 square feet, depending on whose measurements are used--that detail also was debated.
Filzer said that he told the developers that they were "at risk" since the ordinances were being contested. "They [the developers] have created the situation they find themselves in," he said.
Martin Lanza, the attorney for the property owners, argued that it was the city that was to blame because of "vagueness" in the zoning ordinances. "I respectfully disagree with the Appeals Court decision. Judges are human, too," he said, adding that "lots of other lots will be significantly affected by this interpretation."
Several Newton residents also spoke in support of the owners and developers.
Ernie Rogers, the builder whose permit was contested on the nonconforming lot at 31 Bradford Road, argued that if developers have to combine smaller properties in order to build "modest homes," they would have to build larger homes in order to recoup the costs. "And what do the abutters gain then?" he asked.
Rogers cites one "remaining remedy" for owners of nonconforming lots who want to build on them, if the city does not allow it: requesting a hearing by the Supreme Judicial Court. If the court refused to hear the case, suing the city would be a possibility, he said.
"A lot of policy issues have been raised in previous articles in the media [on this zoning issue in Newton]," said Hugh Starkey, attorney for the abutters near the Goddard Street property. "But this meeting is not about policy--it's about upholding the current zoning laws."
The board did not come to a decision at the meeting, and no date was been given for one.