A citizen's petition wants restrictions on large house plans/ Credit: Needham Observer

The proposal to amend a 2017 zoning bylaw that regulates the size of homes in the town’s Single Residence B (SRB) zoning district met with some disagreement at Tuesday’s Planning Board public hearing. 

Joe Matthews, a Town Meeting member from Precinct I, has submitted a citizens petition to amend the bylaw, which he described as “overly permissive and not appropriately regulating housing size.”

“This is preventing us from reaching our goals on affordability and sustainability and maintaining the character of the neighborhoods,” he said in support of his plan to change a bylaw that he and others believe has enabled a dramatic increase in home sizes, especially those built to replace teardowns.

The bylaw in question was one of several zoning regulations that emerged from a three-year effort by the Large House Study Review Committee, established in 2014 to address concerns about the impact of new or expanded homes on the character of the surrounding residential neighborhoods.

In 2017, Town Meeting voted to accept the committee’s recommendation to exclude basements, attics, and half-stories located directly above the second floor from calculations of a house’s allowed total square footage.

Matthews said that omission should be reversed, as it allows the construction of overly large homes on small lots in the SRB zone, the district that contains the most single-family homes.

“This is an opinion shared by previous iterations of the Planning Board,” he testified. “And we hope that this would disincentivize the demolition of small to medium-sized habitable houses that a healthy town would have an ample supply of.”

Matthews, who appeared via Zoom, showed multiple before-and-after photos of SRB lots where modest-sized homes were replaced by significantly larger structures. He claimed the 2017 bylaw was introduced as a way to restrict housing size but has had the opposite effect. 

He displayed a chart that showed how new homes in SRB have trended larger since the bylaw was passed, noting nothing was done to discourage teardowns.

When the hearing was opened to public comment, Mark Gluesing, a member of the Large House Committee back in 2017, pointed out the committee was not formed to limit teardowns or manage overall house size.

“We studied this thing six ways to Sunday,” said Gluesing, an architect who is also a member of the town’s Design Review Board. “The charge from the Planning Board was not to stop teardowns,” he said. “It was simply to improve the quality of the structures that were beginning to appear.

“Not all square footage is equal,” he added, noting that very few houses at that time included finished space above the second floor.

Jeanne McKnight, a Planning Board member who served on the Large House Committee, echoed Gluesing’s comments. “Our charge was not to reduce teardowns,” she said. “It was to create a better design for the new houses that could be built, to have a concern for its setback, to encourage porches and bay windows, and certain designs that would make the houses more attractive.”

Broader context, more study needed

The hour or so of public comments ranged from scathing criticism of what was characterized as unrestrained construction of oversized homes and of clear-cutting of trees that has exacerbated stormwater damage, countered by defenses of private property rights and preserving the ability of seniors to cash out fully when they sell their homes.

The most common theme was that the issue was complex and that the proposed bylaw amendment needed to be discussed in a much larger context.

“I think we really need to think carefully about the implications of what we’re doing,” said Bill Paulson, a local real estate agent. He noted that the post-pandemic real estate market is quite different from 2017 for a variety of reasons, such as more people working from home and needing more space, and stricter building codes that emphasize sustainable practices.

John Bulian, a former Select Board member, advocated “a robust process, similar to HONE (the Housing Needham Working Group), where there are many meetings that the public is invited to attend and participate.”

“We need to look at this far more holistically,” said Justin McCullen, who is running unopposed in Tuesday’s town election to succeed McKnight, who is stepping down after 18 years on the Planning Board. “For example, there are significant hydrology impacts that are happening with new houses.”

Nick Tatar, a Standish Road resident, agreed that the issue required study, but also had an element of urgency. “It’s not just a dumpster showing up in the driveway. It’s a house being knocked down and everything on the lot being cut down from property line to property line to excavate the whole space.

“Some of these changes are ‘forever’ changes. I sincerely hope we can hit the pause button while we identify what best practices are.”

Adam Block, chair of the Planning Board, said they will likely vote on the board’s recommendation to Town Meeting at its next meeting on April 24. Its options include supporting the petition, opposing it, taking no position or recommending that it be referred back to the Planning Board to act.

“I don’t want to get ahead of the board,” he said. “But I do think the Planning Board should have an opportunity to look at all of the elements, not just one in isolation.”

 Save as PDF

Click here to go Home