Plan Board Seeks Advice On Limit Of Authority Over Subdivision

By: Tim Wood

Existing buildings at the former Hunter's Pine Acres cottage colony along Barn Hill Road.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – By removing one lot from a subdivision off Barn Hill Road, Eastward Companies will eliminate the need to request a waiver from the planning board and thus avoid the potential for additional restrictions on the project, including a buffer area vehemently opposed by the developer.

But planning board members aren't so sure that's the case, and want town counsel to weigh in on the issue.

The proposed subdivision has raised alarms with neighbors on Ocean Port Lane, located down a hill from the seven-acre 288 Barn Hill Rd. property, the former Hunter's Pine Acres cottage colony. They're concerned that development of the mostly wooded land will lead to erosion and possible damage and flooding of their property.

Eastward Companies originally proposed a 14-lot subdivision, with 13 of the lots located on a cul-de-sac and one fronting on Barn Hill Road. Under the town's zoning bylaw and subdivision regulations, cul-de-sacs are limited to 12 lots without a waiver from the planning board. In an earlier straw vote, board members were leaning against a waiver, although some saw it as an opening to negotiate for a no-disturb buffer zone between the new subdivision and Ocean Port Lane, requested by the neighbors to protect the slope from erosion.

Last week Eastward filed a new plan that removed one of the lots along the cul-de-sac, eliminating the need for a waiver. The land area gained by taking out one low allowed the remaining lots to be more regularly shaped with straighter property lines, said engineer David Clark.

“Pretty much everything else is the same,” he said. “At this point we're not asking for any waivers; we're in 100 percent compliance.”

Eastward Attorney William Riley said redesigning the subdivision was seen as a better way to proceed than trying to incorporate a buffer strip, which could cause problems for future owners and impact the value of the lots. The resulting plan is an improvement over the original, he added.

“We're very pleased with the way its turned out,” he said. The company will provide some screening along the boundary with the Ocean Port Lane neighborhood, which Riley said was “appropriate.” While the lots will be graded to avoid runoff causing erosion, ultimately individual homeowners will be responsible for those areas.

Chairman Peter Cocolis said while the board has to follow the rules, “we have certain legal responsibilities to the town,” including looking out for the public interest. While the board has no authority over how individual lots are developed, it does exercise control over subdivisions, and since the issue of the buffer has been raised, there's a responsibility to look into it. Exactly how the board can do that is what he wants town counsel to rule on.

“I want to know how far we can go. I'm going to ask that no matter what,” he said.

Vice chairman Kathryn Halpern said removing one lot mitigated a number of concerns, and the resulting plan was an improvement. But “there's the letter of the law and there's the spirit of the law,” she said, and even though the regulations do not grant the planning board specific authority over some of the issues raised by neighbors, the board has an obligation to determine if there is a proper mechanism to address those concerns.

Riley agreed there's a limit to the board's authority. “We hope your question to town counsel clarifies that,” he said.

The subdivision hearing was continued until Dec. 12.