July 17, 2014: A closer look at restrictions for two-family homes

July 17, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald

It’s amazing what fear what will sell. When people are afraid, they will buy things they otherwise would never ever have even looked at. That happened at Belmont’s Annual Town Meeting this year.

The Planning Board served as Belmont’s Professor Harold Hill. And, as sure as Planning Board chair Mike Battista sang the refrain that “you’ve got trouble,” Belmont bought its boy’s band.

The sales job was based on the fear not of a pool table in the community, but rather of the construction of new two-family homes in Belmont’s General Residence zone.

The underlying problem unquestionably is real. Frequent “mansionization” is occurring in some of Belmont’s most densely built neighborhoods. Recent new construction, which has torn down small single-family homes and replaced them with huge two-family side-by-side houses, frequently has been out of character with other homes in the rest of the neighborhood.

That problem, however, doesn’t justify the solution that the Planning Board sold to Town Meeting.

The zoning bylaw presented to Town Meeting stated its purpose as being “to promote development of single and two-family dwellings that are compatible with the surrounding built environment.” The actual bylaw, however, went well beyond that purpose. Under the bylaw, for example, the Planning Board reserved the power to “impose such other. . .limitations on time. . .that it determines to be appropriate. . .”

Before Town Meeting, I asked the Town’s Senior Planner to provide an example of a “limitation on time” that might be imposed on the residents of new two-family homes. His response provided no example, but instead simply cited the state statute authorizing a municipality to impose such a condition through a special permit process.

There are unquestionably some commercial developments where I could understand imposing a “limitation on time” as a condition of a permit. A town might, for example, restrict early morning or late night deliveries to a business. A town might restrict the time of trash collection from a restaurant.

Placing a restriction on the time that a family may use their own home? No.

At first glance, the notion that the Planning Board really wanted the authority to impose a “restriction on time” on how a family uses its home might simply be dismissed as sloppy draftsmanship, failing to distinguish between commercial and residential developments. Other parts of the bylaw, however, do not support such a conclusion.

Elsewhere in the bylaw, the Planning Board reserved the power:

  •  to restrict the time of how residents use their new two-family homes to ensure that those residents do not “generate excessive. . .noise”;  and
  •  to police the use of “exterior lighting,” including restricting the time at which residents of new two-family homes use that exterior lighting.

The bylaw, in other words, gives the Planning Board the power not only to limit the number of patio lights that may be installed outside a new two-family home, but also the power to restrict the times at which those patio lights may be turned on, or must be turned off.

A response that “we would never do that” does not lend me comfort. Why would the Planning Board seek the authority to take action which it says it will never take?

It is reasonable to restrict new two-family housing construction to ensure that such buildings are in character with the existing homes which remain in the neighborhoods. Belmont’s Planning Board, however, does not need the power to impose and enforce restrictions, applicable only to residents of new two-family homes, limiting the time at which those residents can engage in uses of their own homes.

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