Brookline OK’s tighter zoning bylaw
New district is applied to apartment complex
Brookline residents struggle with the town’s popularity as a convenient locality near Boston, connected by several busy trolley and bus lines. Already nearly fully built out, the town’s neighborhoods face regular proposals for more apartments in ever-decreasing open space.
The struggle enabled an unusual collaboration of activists across political and economic boundaries to gain Special Town Meeting approval Tuesday night for a new regulatory tool called a neighborhood conservation district.
Less defined than a historic district but with the ability to be more specific than zoning regulations, the neighborhood conservation district allows the community to determine the character of an area - taking into account such elements as the style of buildings, and the size and appearance of open lots and parks. It cannot be used to regulate replacement windows or doors, temporary structures, regular maintenance, gutters, and removal or replacement of storm-damaged plants or buildings.
Currently, Wellesley, Lincoln, and Cambridge have such districts.
Town Meeting followed its adoption of the conservation district bylaw by applying one immediately to Hancock Village, over the objections of representatives of its owner, Chestnut Hill Realty. The complex of garden apartments is in the southwestern corner of Brookline, abutting West Roxbury and close to Newton.
Chestnut Hill Realty is proposing to add more than 400 units of housing and pave over open space in the development, which dates to the 1940s.
Most other conservation districts require the agreement of at least 50 percent of the landowners involved. But the new district for Hancock Village affects only Chestnut Hill Realty, which does not want it, said James Shea, a lawyer representing the company.
Its designation as a neighborhood conservation district “will not stop development in Hancock Village,’’ Shea said.
Joe Geller, a former selectman and a landscape architect consulting for Chestnut Hill Realty, told Town Meeting that conservation districts could be applied arbitrarily, and would invite the “design police’’ to regulate more of Brookline homeowners’ lives.
Roger Blood, speaking for the town’s Housing Advisory Board, added a note of caution about the districts’ formation. He said that because the districts were fairly easy to pass, they could act as a deterrent to the construction of traditional affordable-housing projects, which need considerable initial investments to design, create construction documents, and secure construction financing.
A neighborhood conservation district could halt or delay such a process, he said, and could create a “chilling effect on potential future projects’’ and jeopardize state funding.
“It may mean we see more 40B projects, which could mean reduced community control,’’ Blood said, referring to Chapter 40B, a state law that allows developers to circumvent some municipal zoning restrictions in order to construct affordable housing in areas with little of it.
The Chapter 40B process is a possible alternative for Chestnut Hill Realty as it seeks to expand Hancock Village, according to Shea and Geller. Shea has also told town officials that passage of the conservation district for the development may result in litigation.
But since there have been hours of public hearings and discussion about the conservation district proposal, and many years of presentations on Hancock Village options, proponents of the new bylaw hardly needed to debate the merits of the two articles.
Selectman Richard Benka, a retired lawyer who drafted both proposals, said that Chapter 40B or litigation have always loomed as possibilities. The neighborhood district, according to other proponents, will give the town better tools to regulate even 40B developments.
Community activist William Pu said that in designating Hancock Village as a conservation district, Article 6 on the Special Town Meeting warrant, Brookline was acting “to preserve the public good from the actions of a single entity.’’
“Article 6 will stop insanely inappropriate development at Hancock Village,’’ Pu said.