An older home on Warren St. was torn down last month/ Credit: Needham Observer

A Town Meeting member has chosen to go the citizens’ petition route to address the longstanding question of what, if anything, the town should do to regulate the size of new homes constructed to replace teardowns.

Joe Matthews of Precinct I brought the issue before the Planning Board over the summer but did not succeed in convincing it to consider revising a zoning bylaw passed by Town Meeting in 2017. The board cited limited bandwidth due to the heavy workload it anticipated related to the MBTA Communities Act and the extensive renovation plans of the Needham Housing Authority.

Rather than wait for the board’s agenda to free up, Matthews obtained the necessary signatures to ask Annual Town Meeting in May to consider a zoning bylaw change that could make it more difficult for new homes to be built at the scale they have been in recent years.

“Because it’s a citizens’ petition, I was advised it should be as simple as possible,” Matthews said of his warrant article. He disagreed with the notion that the issue is overly complex and requires the extensive amount of due diligence that Planning Board members suggested.

“This is not some niche topic that’s complex,” said Matthews. “This is simply trying to come back and finish the work and actually get right what was not done right in 2017. This is something that everyone is living and seeing, and they should have opinions on it.”

Revisiting the work of the Large House Study Committee

The origins of the issue date back more than a decade, when concerns were increasingly raised that Needham was becoming more dense and losing its residential character due to older, smaller homes being torn down and replaced by larger homes.

Over time, that concern expanded to include the town’s overall affordability as well as the dwindling inventory of starter homes historically purchased by young families and the impact of large homes on the town’s stormwater capacity.

In May 2014, the town established a Large House Study Committee to examine the issue “in response to concerns expressed by Needham residents as to the impact new or expanded homes are having on the character of the surrounding residential neighborhood.” 

The 12-member committee was initially charged with completing a draft warrant article by Feb. 1, 2015. That eight-month window expanded to three years and two dozen meetings that included multiple community forums. It wasn’t until Annual Town Meeting in 2017 that the work of the committee was brought to a vote.

After considerable debate, Town Meeting voted unanimously to amend the dimensional requirements in the zoning bylaws to address concerns over the scale of the new construction, specifically in the Single Residence B districts where quarter-acre lots predominate.

Before and after photos of recent tear downs/ Credit: Joe Matthews

The 2017 bylaw language reads as follows: “The term ‘Floor Area Ratio’ means the floor area divided by the lot area. Floor area shall be the sum of the horizontal areas of the several floors of each building on a lot, as measured from the exterior faces of the exterior walls, but excluding basements, attics, half-stories located directly above the second floor . . .” the 2017 language reads. 

Matthews says the core issue is not current floor area ratio (FAR) limitations, per se, but how FAR is calculated. His petition calls for the bylaw language to be changed to include — not exclude —the areas in basements and above the second floor with a ceiling height of more than 5 feet. 

Matthews provided a 100-slide PowerPoint presentation to support his petition, offering multiple examples of new homes with 5,000 to 6,000 square feet of living space where much of that space had not been “counted” toward its allotted FAR limit because it exists outside of the first and second floors.

“New construction has evolved during the intervening years to include finished and habitable space in most, if not all third floors and basements,” Matthews argued. “As such, the bylaw changes from 2017 did not achieve the intended effect of reducing the size of residential new construction in Needham.“

“The logic of this Citizens’ Petition Article is that all spaces designed for human occupancy should count towards floor area limits,” he wrote. “To put it simply — a bathroom, a bedroom, a study, a gym, or any other space intended for human occupancy should count towards floor area limits regardless of the floor of the structure it is located on.”

Matthews acknowledges the change is simple in concept but dramatic in its potential impact. “I think it’s a nice way just to make sure that those spaces are counted the way they should. It’s a very simple language change. I think it’s logically consistent.”

Matthews avoids the term “loophole” to describe the 2017 change, but Planning Board member Artie Crocker did not mince words when Matthews spoke to the board in July. “I do see the language as a loophole,” said Crocker. “Maybe it was intentional. 

“I think it would be a simple fix to remove that loophole. I don’t think we’d need a two- or three-year study,” he said at the time.

His colleague and current chair Adam Block eschews the loophole label and also sees far more complexity. “It’s not necessarily about loopholes. I think it’s about a broader community goal of what size homes do we want in our town,” said Block. He emphasized that considerations of personal property rights need to be front of mind.

“Right now, I have more questions than I have answers from what I’ve seen from the petition.”

Those questions will likely be asked at a future Planning Board meeting. Matthews will be invited to present his petition to the full board, possibly at its April 2 scheduled meeting.

“I will give him every opportunity to speak to the purpose of what he’s looking to achieve and to explain the citizens’ petition,” said Block. “I agree that the wording of it is very simple and straightforward, but I don’t believe, personally, that the impact is.”

Matthews fully expects some controversy. “I knew when I started this it would perhaps be a little contentious. There is an aspect of this that speaks to people’s values. Do they want to leave behind the same opportunities that they had when they came here?”

Anticipating objections from builders, realtors and others, Matthews said this is far from a death knell for future teardowns. 

“There is still quite permissive zoning overall in Needham. There are still going to be teardowns occurring and large houses being built. Make no mistake.”

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