A hot real estate market is spurring some developers to build super-sized “McMansions,” sparking an outcry among homeowners in Needham and other Boston suburbs.
A group called Restore Needham is pushing for new rules that would cap the height of new homes while also establishing some firm limits on how close to the street or edge of the yard a new house can be built.
The proposal comes as developers in Needham and other upscale suburbs around Boston snap up older ranches, colonials and capes and then tear them down to make way for much larger homes.
However, builders in some cases are cramming far too much house onto modestly sized lots, critics contend. And the result is new homes that dwarf their neighbors and create other problems as well, argues Paul Dawson, a developer and architect who helped found Restore Needham.
“What is happening over time is the whole character of the town is changing,” Dawson contends.
Members of Restore Needham are pushing for limits after running into problems with oversized homes in their own neighborhoods.
One member of the group has had to install basement pumps – and an emergency generator to make sure they keep working in a power outage – after a huge home was built on a small lot next door, leading to storm water runoff issues.
For his part, Dawson got involved after what he thought were plans to build a 2.5 story home next door where an old ranch once stood instead morphed into something much taller.
Dawson did not have any particular concerns until he saw the third and fourth stories being framed – the house wound up rising more than 55 feet, or five stories.
He now faces the prospect of his new neighbor being able to peer over the roof of his own two-story home and into his back patio.
“I got involved because a monstrous house was built across the street from mine,” Dawson said. “It was [not] like anything I had ever seen before in Needham – it was shockingly large.”
The developer was able to go so high thanks to a loophole in Needham’s zoning rules that allowed the first two stories to be classified as “basement” floors.
In a first step, Needham voters will be asked to close the “basement loophole” at a special town meeting this fall. Among other things, Restore Needham’s zoning proposal also calls for capping the height of new homes at 31 feet, down from 35 feet now.
A developer who wants to go up to 35 feet, in turn, would have to increase the setbacks of the house from its side and rear yard by 50 percent above the minimum, according to the proposal.
Formed over two years ago to look at the teardown issue, Needham’s Large House Review Study Committee has endorsed closing the loophole.
But the committee, which is preparing its own slate of zoning proposals for the spring town meeting, is still examining Restore Needham’s other ideas. Any new zoning proposal faces a big hurdle, having to win a two-thirds vote.
“When you start talking about building heights and setbacks … those are complex changes that will change the value of someone’s lot,” said Matt Borrelli, chairman of Needham’s Board of Selectmen. “We don’t want to over-regulate where you diminish the value of someone’s property significantly.”