Friday, January 25, 2008
Controlling the teardowns
Driving into Acton on Pope Road, or taking the Cambridge Turnpike past the Concord Museum, many of us have been appalled by the construction of two large houses in neighborhoods of smaller, more modest homes. These two expensive houses were built several years ago and now appear to be lived in, after standing vacant for several years. Both houses stand out like "sore thumbs," and in the case of the Cambridge Turnpike house, was built on the site of a teardown and now dwarfs the houses nearby. As for the house on Pope Road, it appears to be the forerunner for smaller nearby houses coming down, with out-sized houses built in their place.
Recently, articles have appeared in the Boston Globe reporting on several communities in the Boston area, Wellesley and Norwell to be specific, that have taken steps to prevent developers from building these giant, oversized homes, "McMansions" as they are frequently called, if they don't fit in with the characteristics of an already-established neighborhood of older homes
At the end of an eight-year battle, the state's highest court recently ruled that the town of Norwell's zoning board of appeals could deny a developer's plan to build a larger house in what was described as a neighborhood of rural farmhouse-style homes. Boston attorney Carl King, who wrote a brief supporting Norwell's position, said the court gave town officials wide latitude to determine whether a house is appropriate for a neighborhood.
In ruling in favor of the town of Norwell, the court laid out this important principle:
Our decision recognizes that many municipalities do not welcome the building of structures that represent the popular trend of "mansionization." This is especially so when the structures involve reconstruction on nonconforming lots. The expansion of smaller houses into significantly larger ones decreases the availability of would-be "starter" homes in a community, perhaps excluding families of low to moderate income from neighborhoods. Municipalities may permissibly exercise their police power to attempt to limit these potential adverse effects. Doing so is consistent with the Legislature's concern for affordable housing . and with the autonomy given local communities to determine land use issues sensibly.
Norwell's strong and detailed bylaw has been upheld and reinforced by the state's highest court. I suggest that this is the time for Carlisle to review and perhaps strengthen its own bylaw — Section 6, Non-Conforming Buildings and Uses — to cope more effectively with efforts, sure to come, to build large, inappropriate houses on non-conforming lots.
Change is in the air: a questionnaire
1. What is the best way to keep Carlisle from changing?
a) Don't do anything; trust in divine Providence. [Or divine Bedford. Or maybe Lincoln?]
b)Tighten 2-acre zoning by requiring a meaningful percentage of upland for a lot to be considered buildable.
c) Become Brigadoon (in the eponymous musical, the small Scottish village that is forever protected from being changed by the outside world through some agreement whereby it appears for only one day every 100 years — a century that passes as one day for residents). [Read the fine print on this deal before signing on.]
d) Cover your eyes and make a loud rhythmic noise so you can't see or hear the change inexorably taking place. (If you can't sense it, then maybe it isn't happening.) [If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it fall, but the next time you look, there's a big house there — did the tree make a noise?]
e) None of the above.
2. So you want to manage change, do you? OK, should you:
a)Change zoning to allow denser development under restrictions carefully crafted to result in no more net housing units than would occur without such a zoning change? [Unintended consequences? What unintended consequences?]
b)Invest community assets (open space, financial resources, time) in the creation of denser affordable housing where we want it in an attempt to fend off dense 40B developments where we don't? [I forget — where do we want it again?]
c)Pray that somehow the economy recovers (so you can pay for college), but that the housing market doesn't, so developers have no incentive to build here? [Remember, you're gonna live here forever, so don't worry about the value of your own home.]
d)Come to an understanding that land, though phenomenally more expensive than ever before, is still cheaper than it will be in 20 years, so leverage the heck out of the Town's Free Cash reserves, buy up every remaining parcel within our borders and _______? (Fill in the blank.)
e) None of the above.
3. OK, forget about trying to manage change. What's the best way to hold down taxes?
a)Form regional alliances with neighboring towns, compromising some independence for economies of scale to keep taxes still too high, but bearable. (e.g. shared middle schools with Concord, a joint senior center with Bedford using their public transit, a connection to Westford's water, ABC police cruisers patrolling Acton, Billerica and you-know-who.)
b) Independence, schmindependence! Let's get annexed!
c)No new rec fields. No new school. (No art. No music. No Chinese.) No new fire truck. (No COA van. No new snowplow. And definitely no mini-plow for the pathways.) No more pathways. Heck, no more town roads, period. No insurance. No senior center. OK, no seniors. (Sell your house and retire to Maine.) No planning. No _______. (Fill in the blank.)
d)Did I hear someone suggest luring one of Governor Patrick's casinos to Carlisle for some Big Time Small Town Revenue Enhancement? [I swear I heard it somewhere. Really.]
e)None of the above.
4. What's the big deal?
a)Change happens. That's what makes life interesting.
b)My kids are done with school and have moved away. I made enough money before the dotcom bust that the taxes don't faze me. Inertia is a powerful force.
c)I never understood "rurality" anyway.
d)Nothing we do is going to make enough of a difference to even matter compared to external forces beyond our control.
e)It's still Carlisle, it's still special, and that's not gonna change.
Or is it?
© 2008 The