Zoning Bylaw Working Group - Dec 1st, 2021

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Meeting held via remote participation. Materials were available from https://www.arlingtonma.gov/Home/Components/Calendar/Event/26133/18.

Zoning Audit

The Zoning audit is the first item on the working group's agenda. There were two audits done for the Master Plan, and we've been talking about what issues (identified in the audit) to work on next.

(John Worden) Mr. Worden asks if there are any zoning warrant articles that the group will review for the spring town meeting.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says there's nothing formal yet.

(John Worden) Mr. Worden thinks that Barbara Thornton's ADU article from last year was terrible.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak believes town meeting disagreed with Mr. Worden.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt also notes that town meeting overwhelmingly adopted that ADU article.

A few weeks ago, board members were asked to provide written feedback on the zoning audit. Planning department staff has assembled these comments into a matrix, and we'll go back to that. We'll start with Christian Klein's suggestions.

(Christian Klein) Mr. Klein would like to look at section 5.3.9(A) which deals with things that can be built in front setback. The bylaw allows a property owner to build a 25 square foot enclosed front porch by right, but it says nothing about open porches. During the last year, the ZBA heard numerous applications for open porches. The ZBA approved these, typically with the condition that the new porch could not be considered part of the building foundation. He wonders if we might consider a bylaw provision that allows some open porches by right.

Section 5.4.2(B)(6) is another one that might need work. This section deals with large additions and says a special permit is required if the addition is larger than 750 square feet or 50% of the gross floor area. But it doesn't say "the lesser of" or "the greater of". There's also a provision that says a special permit isn't required if the addition is entirely within the existing foundation. Inspectional services has traditionally interpreted this to mean that a special permit is required when there's 750 square feet of addition space outside of the existing foundation. He thinks the bylaw should clearer about what's included and what's excluded, and that the standard interpretation should be incorporated into the bylaw.

(John Worden) Mr. Worden wants to talk about large additions. He says that part of this is the foundation -- what's in it and what doesn't count. He'd like to know how the new building inspector defines foundation, and the fact that large new homes can be built by right while large additions require a special permit.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt recalls that one of last year's warrant articles proposed a definition of foundation for the bylaw. After consultation with the building inspector, the Redevelopment Board decided to defer the to the building code, which has a whole chapter on foundations rather than a single definition.

(Michael Ciampa) Mr. Ciampa is the new director of Inspectional Services. He agrees with Ms. Raitt. There are many different types of foundations, including piling systems. Depending on the structure, there can even be some ambiguity as to what's part of the foundation and what isn't. He thinks that any bylaw changes should depend on what the goal is. If you want to achieve a certain result, then you should pursue the change that way.

(John Worden) Mr. Worden says there were lots of one and 1.5 story homes built in Arlington after world war two. Large additions were allowed within the foundation so in order to allow the owners to add a second story. Now we get these huge houses where there used to be a tiny ranch.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson thinks the issue is whether the idea makes sense. Rather than trying to refine the large addition bylaw, he thinks there should be a discussion about what property owners are allowed to do with their homes by right. People use homes differently than they did fifty or seventy-five years ago.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak agrees with Mr. Benson -- homes are used different than they were in the past. Home offices for remote work are now common, and that wasn't the case a few years ago. In addition, some people like having more interior space, and there's nothing wrong with that.

(Christian Klein) Mr. Klein offers to take a stab at drafting changes to 5.3.9(a) and 5.4.2(B)(6).

Next is an ambiguity in Section 8.1.6(A). This section deals with pre-existing non-conformities in single- and two-family homes. It's not clear whether this also applies to garages or unsafe structures. This observation came up in a ZBA case, where a property owner on Adams Street wanted to rebuild a non-conforming and garage where the roof had failed and the structure was unsafe. Mr. Klein thinks the bylaw should say who gets to determine if a structure is unsafe.

(Mike Ciampa) Mr. Ciampa says that whenever unsafe structures come up, there's almost always a structural engineer involved. However, there was a case where a contractor demolished a house on Robbins Road after making that determination himself.

There's more discussion about foundation walls. Mr. Ciampa says the building code defines piers as part of the foundation. He reiterates his earlier suggestion: if you don't want something to be treated as part of the foundation, then approach the bylaw amendment from that angle, rather than trying to mess with a definition. Mr. Klein and Mr. Ciampa will continue this discussion offline.

Next, we'll move on to comments about resiliency review.

(Pam Heidell) Ms. Heidell says she'd like to present resiliency examples from other communities. Rather than discuss them now, she'd prefer to assemble a set of examples and send them to the group for review.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says the Planning Department might contribute a warrant article in this area. They've been working on a proposal in conjunction with the Tree Committee.

There's a short discussion about page numbers. Mr. Worden says there should be page numbers in the bylaw. Mr. Benson points out that there are page numbers, in chapter-page format. Mr. Worden says there should be sequential page numbers.

Mr. Worden believes there should be a moratorium on all new residential construction until 10% of the town's tax base is commercial. None of the other working group members seem interested in talking about moratoriums.

(Ralph Wilmer) Mr. Wilmer offers an update on the progress of DHCD guidance for MBTA communities. He believes that draft guidance might be ready by mid December. This will be followed by a 30 day comment period.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says she'd like to give the ARB an update on the status of the MBTA community guidance. She doesn't believe there will be enough time to respond to the guideline during the spring town meeting.

Steve Revilak is asked to summarize his written comments next.

(Steve Revilak) Most of Mr. Revilak's comments dealt with zoning in the business districts. He thinks Mr. Worden's goal of a 10% commercial tax base is laudable, but suspects it will be very difficult to get there. Over the last 50 years, Arlington enacted a number of policies that have discouraged commercial growth. Once you've been walking in one direction for a long time, it's okay to turn around and go in the other direction. But, it will take time to get back to your started from.

Mr. Revilak says his first comment really boils down to reconsidering whether so many commercial uses should require a special permit. Although he favors commercial growth, he thinks a larger conversation is required. Since Arlington made a number of policy decisions to limit commercial development, it's reasonable to believe that many people don't want it.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt says that Arlington's commercial base has declined considerably in the last 25 years; it was as high as 12% at one time. In terms of having a commercial base, we're clearly doing something wrong. She would like to work in conjunction with the finance committee, to understand how much commercial growth we'd need in order to make a difference in residential taxes.

(Steve Revilak) Mr. Revilak says that increasing the commercial tax base means doing things differently than we've done in the past; it means changing the community. Before we decide to fix things, we have to agree that they're broke. Sure, this makes Arlington a more expensive place to live, but we're a desirable community with good schools, a lot of family housing, and close proximity to job centers. He thinks the demographics have been adapting to those circumstances.

(John Worden) Mr. Worden thinks we have to make Arlington more attractive to businesses.

(Eugene Benson) Mr. Benson thinks finance committee input is important, so we know how much it would take to move the needle. We should understand the commercial market, whether Arlington will be able to meet its needs, and what would have to change as a result.

(Jenny Raitt) Ms. Raitt believes that revitalizing business districts should be in the forefront.

Ms. Raitt informs the working group that several citizen petitioners will appear at the Dec 6th ARB meeting, to discuss their warrant article ideas with the board. Ms. Raitt will provide a summary at the next meeting of this group, but she invites people to attend.

Approval of Minutes

The board approved minutes from their Nov 10th meeting.

2022 Meeting Dates

The group will keep their 8:30 meeting time. Meetings will be held remotely until town policy allows them to be held in person.

Meeting adjourned.