Town Meeting Puts Kibosh On McMansions Passing Limits On Residential Homes

Photo: Peg Callanan speaking before Town Meeting on Monday. Steve Pinkerton is behind Callahan.

Late in 2014, Sargent Road’s Peg Callanan and Stephen Pinkerton of Dalton Road decided something had to be done to put a halt the sudden explosion of oversized structures – dubbed McMansions – being built in their neighborhood of single-family homes adjacent to the Grove Street Playground.

Nearly 18 months since they formed the Belmont Citizens for Responsible Zoning (BCRZ) to bring attention to what they called “a threat to the character of our community,” Callanan and Pinkerton were present to see their concerns answered when Belmont Town Meeting on Monday, June 6, overwhelmingly approved major changes to the zoning bylaw that places permanent restrictions on the size of new construction or major renovations in seven of Belmont’s eight precincts.

“The vote shows that you can change what some said was too complicated to do,” said Callanan, after the 195-32 vote to give its blessing to Article 6 which sets limits to the height and space around new homes.

The vote on the article – which took 15 minutes – came after nearly three hours of debate on four amendments that would allow the construction of a second floor by right, the placement of HVAC units and design issues. Each was defeated handily with the exception of the final amendment on another HVAC-related issue voted down by a margin of two votes, 114-112. 

While the overall article had overwhelming support, many Town Meeting members were dreading the prospect of up to nine amendments which would take time to debate and vote. Advantageously, many of the pending amendments were withdrawn before the meeting, and when Charles Hamann, chair of the Bylaw Review Committee removed three more at the last minute, he received a kiss in gratitude from Planning Board Chair Liz Allison.

See how the new bylaw effects the size and mass of single-family homes going forward in the SR-C district.

Among the new rules are:

  • An applicant that demolishes a house to build a larger home, and on a different foot print, or increases the original gross floor area by more than 30 percent during a renovation will now require obtaining a Special Permit.
  • New homes will be limited in height to 30 feet from the midpoint of the roof line and 34 feet at its highest.
  • The front set back must be the average footage of the abutting houses.
What the new bylaw does is close “two critical loop-holes” in town zoning, said Pinkerton: the lack of a total height limit and the absence of a Special Permit requirement for significant work in residential neighborhoods. 

The new bylaw expands on a one-year moratorium approved at last year’s Town Meeting placing restrictions on the total height (at 32 feet) on any new or reconstructed single-family dwelling unit in a small section of Precinct 7 that saw a rapid increase in demolitions and the construction of mega-homes.

Since that vote, the BCRZ began working with the town’s Planning Board to develop Zoning By-Law amendments to “help preserve the neighborhood’s distinctive character” by mitigating the effects of oversized construction throughout the Single Residence C Zoning District, according to a committee letter to Town Meeting.

“We pledged last year that we would work collaboratively, and that started right away and it just never stopped,” Callahan told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

“We believe that Article 6 is the best solution … that will balance the interests of today’s homeowners for larger homes while respecting the rights of its existing owners,” Callanan told Town Meeting before the vote. 

Pinkerton told Town Meeting members who were thinking of opposing the article as it does not allow “as right” the construction of a second floor or it appears to grants more power to the Planning Board, “not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

“Come to the Planning Board and work with them and with us. This has been a remarkable collaborative effort from all kinds of people,” said Pinkerton. 

There was some opposition, on forcing design parameters being placed on homeowners and builders, and whether new residents would be heard by the Planning Board, yet those issues were brushed aside allow the article to pass comfortably.

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