From home additions to 40Bs, Carlisle’s ZBA fields wide-ranging requests

by Karina Coombs

Building Commissioner John Luther (left) discussed an application with ZBA full and associate members (left to right) Travis Snell, Marty Galligan, Steve Hinton and Emmanuel Crespo on January 13. Not pictured is Chair Lisa Davis Lewis, dwho called in to the public hearing from out of state.
(Photo by Karina Coombs)

The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) can be a feast or famine type of board. Much of the time members are hearing requests for variances for local businesses or home additions. Infrequently, but memorably, they are also the board to decide one of the toughest and most emotionally charged issues a town can face: 40B high-density housing developments.

The ZBA is a three-member board appointed by the Board of Selectmen, with members serving three-year terms. The board also has associate members with the ability to sit in as full members to reach a quorum. There are currently two. Associate members do not have voting powers unless they are sitting in as a full member. Because the ZBA is a three-member board, all votes must be unanimous. 

Chair Lisa Davis Lewis is joined by Marty Galligan as clerk and Emmanuel Crespo. Steve Hinton, a former ZBA member, is currently serving as an associate member and is joined by Travis Snell. Peggy Wang supports the board part time as ZBA Secretary. 

Role of ZBA

The role of the ZBA is to hear and decide appeals for projects that do not meet current zoning bylaws and therefore require a special permit or variance. Appeals are also heard from those unable to receive a permit from Carlisle’s Building Department or those in disagreement with decisions that were made by town boards or officials in accordance with the zoning bylaws. The board also handles permit applications for large earth-moving or stockpiling, such as might be involved in large building projects.

Finally, the ZBA is also the issuing agency of a comprehensive permit for the construction of mixed-income and affordable housing under the Comprehensive Permits Law of 1969 or, as it is more commonly known, M.G.L. 40B.

Enforcing zoning bylaws

Galligan explained that most hearings involve properties that do not meet setbacks or historical homes built before zoning changes. Hinton added that the board also considers variances to operate various types of businesses and the boarding of horses. One of the most common special permit applications to come before the board is bylaw 6.3, which covers the extension of non-conforming use. Galligan estimates they make up at least a quarter of all hearings.

Galligan and Hinton agreed that while the bylaw wording was not optimal, there was enough language in 6.3 to “work your way through.” Hinton suggested that it is also possible the bylaw was written specifically to be broad and to be applied thoughtfully on a case-by-case basis. 

Guest house bylaw awaits 

“a champion”

Both Galligan and Hinton agreed, however, that the more troublesome bylaw pertained to guest houses. The current bylaw is not specific in terms of how a guest house can be used or what it may contain, but historically has been considered an accessory structure to a main house that simply does not contain a kitchen. 

In 2011 Building Commissioner John Luther issued a permit for a guest house on River Road. The Planning Board and a number of residents appealed the decision. The ZBA was unable to reach a unanimous vote to withdraw the building permit and proposed changes to the bylaw have not been made to date. “The guest house is where I would put my attention,” explained Galligan. Hinton agreed, “I’m much more concerned about guest houses [than 6.3].” 

However, the ZBA does not make policy and while it is possible to initiate a bylaw change, Lewis noted that a 2/3 vote at Town Meeting is needed to approve it. “Bylaw changes usually take a champion,” added Galligan.

Comprehensive permits

A 40B comprehensive permit allows the developer to bypass local zoning bylaws for housing projects in which at least a quarter of the units are set aside as affordable. The review process can be complex and time-consuming. In the case of the Coventry Woods 40B project on Concord Street, the board held 19 months of hearings ending in 2007. Galligan explained that while the ZBA does get input from the other town boards during the process, it is still responsible for reviewing engineering plans, evaluating overall design, looking at traffic, fire and safety concerns and any impact on water. “Even though you know things are coming and you know the amount of work involved, you are always caught by surprise,” he added.

The board voted to approve Coventry Woods with conditions. However, abutters filed state appeals to reverse the decision, as did the developer to remove the conditions. The project ultimately faded away and appeals were withdrawn.

Long Ridge Road 40B

If developer Jeff Brem submits a comprehensive permit application for his proposed 40B on Long Ridge Road, the ZBA will have up to six months to review it under the state’s new guidelines, unless both parties agree to an extension. 

“It’s important for people to understand [the] board does not have broad latitude to deny a 40B,” Davis said, given that Carlisle has not met its 10% affordable housing target. Instead, unless there are substantive reasons to deny, Lewis said the role of the ZBA would be to negotiate the best deal for the town in terms of density or landscaping.

Galligan noted that even when things are contentious, there is a shared purpose in doing what is right for the town. “It’s not easy, but you just need to be careful to do your best and do the right thing and follow the law.”

Board members’ backgrounds

Like all other boards and committees in town, the ZBA is made up of citizen volunteers with varying professional backgrounds. Lewis, who Galligan explained probably had the most professional experience link to the board, has 25 plus years of experience in land planning. She also has first-hand experience navigating local boards for commercial and industrial development projects as a result of her commercial real estate career, including 40Bs. Lewis was appointed to the ZBA as an associate member in early 2010 and has also served on the Board of Health. 

Galligan joined the ZBA in 2009 after learning it needed new members. He had previously served on the Housing Authority from its inception in 1988 until deciding to take a break in 2003. “I enjoy being involved in town government,” explained Galligan, a software engineer. In 2009 the ZBA was also preparing for the start of the Benfield Farms 40B project, of which Galligan was very familiar from his work on the Housing Authority as well as having friends who were legal abutters of the South Street property. “I had a foot in both camps and was ready to be involved.”

Emmanuel Crespo, the third full member, is a corporate attorney and has served on the ZBA continuously since 2005, for the first several years as an associate. He was on the board for the Coventry Woods hearings and notes, “Before Coventry the ZBA was a fairly quiet board.” He agreed with Lewis that the board does not have much leeway in rejecting a 40B permit, and compared the process to cell tower hearings, where Federal law limits the ZBA role.

Hinton is an environmental engineer and joined the ZBA in mid-2000s during the Coventry Woods period. Hinton, who has and continues to serve on various boards and committees in town, had been involved with Carlisle’s effort to comply with 40B and wanted to be involved. After taking a break, he has returned as an associate member.

Snell is the newest addition to the ZBA, attending his first ZBA meeting on January 13. “I have always believed that it is important to contribute to your community,” he explained. “I have worked in commercial real estate for over 15 years and have some experience dealing with the issues that come before the ZBA [and] thought this would be a good opportunity to contribute my skills and time to Carlisle.”∆