Arlington Redevelopment Board - Jan 4th, 2021

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Meeting held via remote participation. Materials were available from These are notes for a subset of agenda items.

Docket 3638 - 400--402 Mass Ave

This docket involves a mixed-use building on Mass Ave, which contains two apartments. The petitioners would like to add two more apartments (for a total of four), with no changes to the exterior of the building.

(Robert Annese, Attorney for the Petitioner) Mr. Annese says his client is requesting a continuance. They're talking with a commercial tenant, to see if that tenant will be interested in a space at 400--402 Mass Ave. Mr. Annese says the ARB was hesitant to allow a fourth apartment. Adding a third apartment would mean adding it to the basement, and basement apartments tend to be difficult to rent. He asks that the hearing be continued to Feb 22nd.

Potential Zoning Articles for the 2021 Annual Town Meeting

The planning department is aware of at least two voter petitions: one involving net zero buildings and one involving ADUs. The proponents of these articles will speak to the board tonight.

(Kin Lau, ARB) Mr. Lau asks what kind of barriers to Net-Zero homes are imposed by Arlington's Zoning Bylaw.

(Jenny Raitt, Planning Director) Ms. Raitt says the CEFC has identified some barriers. The planning department is also considering a solar-ready bylaw, something to address electric vehicles, and regulations to incentivize more sustainable construction.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks if we have barriers.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says this came up during the work on industrial zoning. She says we need better incentives for builders to create green buildings.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen is a member of the Clean Energy Futures Committee (CEFC). He'll give a presentation, which proposes to make the zoning bylaw more amenable to green buildings.

The CEFC looked at the town laws and regulations and identified some obstacles for the construction of green buildings. Today, you can replace the part of a building that's above ground, regardless of whether the building is conforming or non-conforming. With a non-conforming building, you cannot replace the foundation. He proposes that we allow non-conforming buildings to be replaced -- including the foundation -- within the footprint of the original building.

Mr. Mietinen says that newer building code standards for energy efficiency apply for new construction, but they don't apply to renovations. Currently 19% of Arlington's buildings are over 100 years old. In the next 30 years, 69% of them will be over 100 years old.

Mr. Mietinen talks about the importance of basement insulation. He says that a house without basement insulation is like wearing a heavy coat and shorts during the winter. Up to 50% of the heat loss can occur through an uninsulated basement.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks if renovations have to meet energy efficiency requirements in the state building code.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says the basement isn't subject to new energy efficiency requirements when it isn't rebuilt.

About 3,000 of 16,000 R0, R1, and R2 parcels are non-conforming. If those homes were rebuilt, they would have to be on top of the existing basements. The non-conforming parcels are concentrated in East Arlington. Thus, we have neighborhoods where you can build an energy efficient home, and neighborhoods were you can't.

Mr. Mietinen says that many irregularly shaped lots don't have the required frontage, so those houses could not be re-built.

He says there are "plus homes" which have negative energy efficiency (i.e., they generate more energy than they use). The carbon payback time for highly-efficient buildings is usually rather short.

Finally, Massachusetts's clean energy code gets more stringent every few years. Mr. Mietinen says the increased stringency doesn't apply when the basement is not replaced.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks questions about insulating the foundation.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says the basement floor and walls become thermal barriers, which makes the basement conditioned living space.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks why it's necessary to tear out the foundation.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says that a highly efficient home needs about 12" of insulation in the basement walls, and one has to ensure that there aren't any problems with water or moisture.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks if this will make the basement bigger.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says it depends on how the foundation is done. Keeping the same footprint means making the interior of the basement smaller. And, older foundations can't always support a building that's built to modern code.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks how net zero factors into affordability.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says the decision to build an energy-efficient home would be made by choice; it's not a requirement. Highly efficient buildings cost significantly less to heat and cool.

(David Watson, ARB) Mr. Watson asks if the new foundation would have to be entirely within the footprint of the old one.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says yes. He'd also like to have a provision that allows up to 750 square feet of additional space, which is the threshold for the large addition provision in the bylaw.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson asks if anyone has built a high efficiency building on top of an old foundation.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says that a new building on top of an old foundation will be more energy efficient than what was there previously. But it wouldn't be a super-efficient/net zero building.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson asks if there are other mitigation techniques.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says there are mitigation techniques, but they'll generally increase the building's massing.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson asks if this could be done with a variance.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says it depends on the town. Some towns definitely do not allow it.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt asks if the state's climate bill and net zero roadmap will include a net zero stretch code.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says that the net zero stretch code would apply to new construction. It wouldn't apply to renovations where the original basement is retained, along with at least two exterior walls.

(Eugene Benson, ARB) Mr. Benson says he'd like to eliminate barriers to building energy efficient homes.

(Katie Levine Einstein, ARB) Ms. Levine Einstein likes the idea of reducing barriers, as opposed to layering on new requirements.

(Rachel Zsembery, ARB Chair) Ms. Zsembery would like to see a market analysis on the demand for highly energy efficient homes.

(Pasi Mietinen) Mr. Mietinen says he has a market analysis, and can share it with the board in the future.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says that warrant articles need to be filed by the end of January. She'd like to know how the board would like to proceed, because her department needs to know what articles to prepare for filing.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson would like to see a warrant article. He'd support it.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau isn't as much on board. He'd like to discuss the proposal with the CEFC.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt offers to organize a meeting with Mr. Lau and members of the CEFC.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson would like people to be able to build homes with highly efficient foundations. He's like to see some guardrails, to ensure compliance with efficiency standards.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery would like to see an illustration showing how replacing a basement would work.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson suspects the construction costs wouldn't be much different, but the house would be less expensive to run.

The discussion moves on to Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs).

(Barbara Thornton) Ms. Thornton says that, as Mr. Mietinen pointed out, we have a lot of old housing, and we're talking about what our homes should look like in the 21st century. She believes that ADUs are on the same wavelength -- they're about how we'll live in the 21st century. Boomers are facing a choice of aging at home alone, or moving to an old age home. The pandemic is also showing us the value of living in groups that are larger than the nuclear family. Mr. Thornton says that 34% of people in Arlington live alone, and that potentially takes housing off the market.

Ms. Thornton believes there's a growing interest in ADUs, and she intends to file a new ADU article. She says there's a punchlist of policy items for discussion. These are the differences between the staff's ADU article and a simpler version she'd like to see.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says the language that staff prepared was based on the direction the board seemed inclined to take. She'd like guidance on which direction to pursue.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson thinks the staff article was well done and incorporated the board's proposals from an earlier ADU hearing. He thinks it makes sense to go forward with an ADU article, and that the board should reconsider some of the conditions. Mr. Benson says he realizes that he lived in an ADU as a kid. He sees the following as policy points for discussion: should ADUs be allowed in new construction, or limited to existing homes. If we limit them to existing homes, why? He's not sure that ADUs need two completely separate means of egress; a means of egress through the main unit might be acceptable. ADUs could be limited to the existing footprint of the building, or we could allow the building to be expanded. Finally, he'd like to permit an ADU in each unit of a duplex, if dimensional regulations permit.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery asks if staff and Ms. Thornton should look at this.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson says that the board can work with Ms. Thornton's article, if it's broad enough. If it's too narrow, the board will need its own article.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson would like to avoid dueling warrant articles. He says that the ARB has modified citizen articles in the past, but only with the citizen's consent. He'd hate to be in a position where the board wanted to do something that Ms. Thornton didn't agree with.

Mr. Watson has questions about the maximum size of ADUs. He doesn't want to create defacto two- or three-family dwellings and would like more control over the situation. He's concerned there will be loud objections. The board will need to know how to respond to them.

(Barbara Thornton) Ms. Thornton says she'd like to work with the board to make the article better. She agrees there are policy issues to work out, and the drafting needs to be clear.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau thinks the ARB should write the article. He'd like to talk through the issues with the board. And maybe not require that an ADU have four or more rooms.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson says the bylaw doesn't need to specify the number of rooms. The number of square feet or percentage of floor area would be sufficient.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau would like to talk about what kinds of buildings this would apply to. He's all for it.

(Katie Levine Einstein) Ms. Levine Einstein suggests thinking more expansively. She says there's data on how ADU ordinances have worked out in different communities. Too many restrictions means they won't get built. She says they must be financially feasible to build at a large enough scale to make a difference.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery says she's hearing two different thoughts on who should put the article forward.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson suggests both the ARB and Ms. Thornton can file articles. If we agree on a main motion, then we can drop one of the articles.

There more back and fourth on how to put the article forward.

(Barbara Thornton) Ms. Thornton would like to avoid dueling ADU articles, and she's like to work with the ARB. She's okay with deciding on one main motion to bring to town meeting.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson believes that by-right is a big improvement over a special permit requirement. He'd prefer to have one article vs two. He's happy to reconsider the regulations and meet in the middle. He'd like to get the article out there and see if it works.

(Barbara Thornton) Ms. Thornton offers to file the article. She says it's in her best interest to have something the board supports.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson asks Ms. Thornton to share her language with Ms. Raitt, to make sure it's broad enough for the board to work with.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says shell work with (town planner) Erin Zwirko and Ms. Thornton.

Ms. Raitt says that the planning department plans to offer a number of administrative corrections, and they'll be drafted in time for the ARB's next meeting. She'd also like to see the board consider a warrant article for the industrial zoning changes.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson asks that the industrial zoning article be broad enough to allow changes to the main motion.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says the article for solar-ready buildings isn't ready yet. She asks the ARB if they'd like to go forward, or wait for the CEFC to submit something.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson would like to wait for the CEFC.

The chair opens the meeting up for public comment on the warrant article discussion.

(John Worden) Mr. Worden opposes the proposal for energy efficient homes. He says he's submitted testimony from his son, which says that it's possible to insulate existing basements. He says it's bad to tear down small homes and build large energy efficient ones. He says that allowing ADUs by right will destroy single-family zones. He says the ARB should bring back Mr. Rudick's article (to allow two-family and duplex homes in existing single-family districts) if they want to do that. He says this will be the fifth time that an ADU article has come before town meeting, and he thinks it's not going to fly. He believes there should be affordability restrictions on ADU.

(Don Seltzer) Mr. Seltzer says he agrees with the idea of making it easier to build energy-efficient homes. He disagrees with the premise that one cannot rebuild a basement on a non-conforming lot, and claims that the reasoning is simply not correct.

(Chris Loretti) Mr. Loretti wants to echo what Mr. Seltzer said. He states that basements are rebuilt on non-conforming lots in East Arlington. He says Mr. Mietinen's proposal will allow larger buildings with more height and massing. He says the ZBA routinely allows additions on lots with no usable open space. He says that inspectional services doesn't interpret the definition of foundation properly. Mr. Loretti asks about articles that were deferred from the Spring 2020 town meeting; he'd like to know if they can be brought forward in spring 2021.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says that town counsel should be contacting proponents with deferred articles. She'll follow up with town counsel.

(Wynelle Evans) Ms. Evans says she's not categorically opposed to ADUs, but thinks Ms. Thornton's article is riddled with gaps. She says there should be regulations on the length of ADU tenancy. She believes that ADUs will become AirBNB rentals, and that would be unfair and inequitable to existing residents. She says there's a lot of policy talk that has to do with people coming in the future. She believes this will come at the expense of existing residents.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak says that if he recalling Arlington's greenhouse gas inventory correctly, then 60% of our GHG emissions come from buildings, the vast majority of which are residential homes. We can't get to net zero without addressing this. If old inefficient homes aren't a liability now, they're likely to become a liability in the future.

Mr. Revilak would like to give a direct answer to Mr. Lau's question about zoning barriers to energy efficient homes. Mr. Revilak says the siding on his house needs to be replaced. He was looking at ways to add insulation to the exterior of the building at the same time; a larsen truss system for example. This would add eight to twelve inches to the exterior of his home, and protrude into required yard setbacks. That would require a variance, and he's skeptical this scenario satisfies all of the variance criteria in state law. Regardless, he's not eager to be the one to test it out.

Regarding ADUs, Mr. Revilak agrees with Ms. Levine Einstein's position. If we have an ADU bylaw, it should be oriented towards creating enough units to make a meaningful difference. He doesn't believe there's value in a restrictive bylaw the exists on paper, but is rarely usable in practice.

(Stuart Borson) Mr. Borson believes that ADUs will allow dwelling spaces to be rented out to students, or turned into air BnB rentals. He says they'll turn into cash cows. He thinks that people will convert their garages into ADUs and park in the street.

(Phil Tedesco) Mr. Tedesco supports the ADU proposal. He says we can look at other communities that have passed ADU articles, and see whether they've been ruined, or whether there was a benefit. Mr. Tedesco says an ADU would have been a great fit for him when he first moved to Arlington, and encourages the board to look at the potential benefits.

(Joanne Preston) Ms. Preston says that we have to be careful in how we influence housing policy. She says that a relative living in an ADU doesn't mean that an extended family is living together. She says that seniors are left at home when other members of the family go to work. She says that seniors suffer from isolation, and that's why assisted living facilities are popular. Seniors don't always want to live with their nuclear families; they want to live with other seniors. She believes that more senior housing would be a good policy.

ARB Pre-Hearing process recommendation

Barbara Thornton sent the ARB a memo with suggested process for hearing warrant articles.

(Barbara Thornton) Ms. Thornton says that the redevelopment board and planning department have huge portfolios of projects. She sent a memo with a suggested timeline for warrant article review, to ensure that there's enough time to hear all of the articles, and to allow for changes and adjustments.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery agrees that this fall's compressed schedule was a challenge.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau notes that the ARB is a volunteer board that meets twice a month. He thinks the guidelines are good, but they may be difficult to adhere to.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson was disappointed with how compressed the fall hearing schedule was. However, he can recall other instances where there wasn't enough time. He thinks it makes sense to work backwards, and suggests that the board should ask for main motions sooner.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson has frequently opined that the board doesn't have enough time to work with zoning articles. He'd like more time for public input, as a way to get broader support. He'd prefer to start talking about zoning changes 6--12 months ahead of town meeting. The board could afford to take more time in order to get better results. He thinks that a timeline would be beneficial.

(Katie Levine Einstein) Ms. Levine Einstein thinks it's important to clarify what counts as good public outreach. She doesn't want outreach to become a moving target that's used to push things out. She says that delay privileges that status quo; it's not a neutral policy. She advises the board to be careful of becoming too bureaucratic.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery agrees with Mr. Benson's comments about working backwards. She suggests the board's next meeting might be a good time to look at a calendar, and figure out where elements of the timeline fall.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says that all boards have to report to town meeting, and reports are usually voted on at the first meeting in April. She points out that there's a legal notification schedule. It's the same timeline every year, so we need to understand what we're going to do within that time. Town staff needs to understand where the board needs more time.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery senses a lack of common understanding about the steps in the process. She'd like to take Ms. Thornton's outline and line it up with the regularized process, in order to make things more transparent.

(David Watson) Mr. Watson appreciates Ms. Levine Einstein's point about the the cost of delaying policy changes. He's not suggesting an infinite period of time for public outreach, but believes that the 12 week time frame isn't enough, especially for new proposals. He notes cases where the board had to make significant changes to a proposal at the last minute, and that doesn't always work well. He wonders if the board can consider proposals before the warrant opens.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson's isn't sure what the right timeline is, but he agrees that the schedule is compressed. He would like to see the board come up with the best public policy, allow for public input, and craft good main motions. Personally, he thinks that good main motions are the most important piece.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery realizes that the board often wants to tweak language during the hearing process. Those hearings usually happen in late February or March. She wonders if the board will need to schedule additional meetings.

(Erin Zwirko, Planning Department) Ms. Zwirko suggests reaching out to the community when the warrant opens. Ask petitioners to approach town staff with their ideas. That should give articles consideration earlier in the process, and allow them to move forward from a better place. This could put ideas in front of board members earlier, so they're not hearing proposals for the first time during the actual hearings.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson says that getting proposed changes (main motions) in March makes for a tight hearing schedule. He agrees that citizen petitioners can be asked to submit their main motions earlier. He's like to see draft wording in February.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says that getting notice from citizen petitioners is sometimes a challenge. The planning department lays out a technical pathway for zoning articles (i.e., the timeline where different steps have to happen). The department uses this internally, but the technical pathway could be shared with the public.

(Barbara Thornton) Ms. Thornton believes that knowing the technical pathway could help.

(Kin Lau) Mr. Lau asks about outreach for citizen petitioners, recognizing that they don't have access to the resources that the board does.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says the planning department has given neighborhood presentations in the past. Going forward, these presentations will happen again.

Open Forum

The chair opens the open forum portion of the meeting.

(Stuart Borson) Mr. Borson thinks that a process document would be excellent. It would let everyone know what to do. He thinks it would be good to define what public input steps to take.

(Don Seltzer) Mr. Seltzer says that earlier, there was extensive discussion about the process for putting forward an ADU article, and an agreement that Ms. Thornton would work with the board. He asks if other members of the public will be given a similar opportunity.

(Rachel Zsembery) Ms. Zsembery says yes.

(Pat Hanlon) Mr. Hanlon endorses Ms. Thornton's initiative, and thinks the goal should be getting good results at the end of the process. Mr. Benson put his finger on the challenge of getting a well-drafted article. In many towns, one needs an almost fully-drafted main motion to get onto the warrant. Broader articles allow more flexibility, but they force you to nail things down later in the process. Mr. Hanlon notes that town counsel helps with articles that come before the Select Board, and there's not really a counterpart for zoning amendments. He suggests thinking about ways to help petitioners craft their articles, perhaps by doing a review of the process before the warrant opens.