Plan Board Explores Limiting Size Of Residential Structures

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Development , Municipal Planning and Zoning

This house between Main Street and Queen Anne Road prompted questions about the allowable scale of residential dwellings. Selectmen have asked the planning board to investigate a zoning bylaw to control the size of houses. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – With growing concern over the loss of historic homes and the replacement of modest houses with buildings several times larger, the planning board is diving into the process of finding a way to limit the scale of residential structures. 

Developing a zoning bylaw to accomplish that goal is likely to require study and analysis, perhaps with assistance from the Cape Cod Commission, said Planning Board Chair Kathryn Halpern.

“Essentially what we may need to decide is what is the standard, historical residential massing that is the ideal that we want to structure the design standards to create for future development and redevelopment,” she said during a discussion at the Feb. 19 board meeting.

Back in January, the board of selectmen adopted a goal to “encourage residential development in keeping with the town's historic nature” and requested that the planning board consider a zoning bylaw change to limit the scale of residential structures. The board noted concerns for continued tear-downs of historic homes, construction of large residential structures on small lots and the need to provide tighter direction to the town's regulatory boards.

Currently, Chatham's zoning bylaw includes limits on lot coverage but does not restrict the square footage of a home.

One element driving the price of land in town, Planning Board member Tom Geagan said, is the ability of a developer to tear down a small home and build something in a price range that allows a profit. Restricting that could potentially have “a profound effect” on land values, he said, and is likely to elicit pushback from developers and builders, he said.

“The town is getting tighter and tighter in terms of the amount of land we have,” Geagan said, adding that the planning board does not have the authority at present to review site plans for individual residential lots.

Lot coverage ranged from 17 percent for smaller lots to 10 percent for larger lots, said Robert Dubis. “The bigger the lot the less you can cover,” he said; further limiting how big homes could be could penalize those with larger lots.

“This is going to have to pass town meeting, which I think might be a tough sell unless you can come up with some unique ideas,” Dubis said. It might have been easier 20 or 30 years ago, when there was more land available, but with tear-downs the chief form of residential development, “it's going to be a tough sell.”

A bylaw would have to have limited “relief valves” to be effective, said Art Spruch. “Otherwise, what are we achieving out of this?” The zoning board of appeals has to be part of the dialog, he suggested. Peter Farber agreed, saying most “mansionized” homes that involved tear-downs were approved by the ZBA; selectmen might be better off appointing people to the zoning board who share their goal.

“Until you get people on the board of appeals who take this seriously, we're not going to accomplish anything,” Farber said.

Halpern said she envisions the process taking two tacks. One involves developing guidelines for West Chatham neighborhood centers, which will call on information developed during a Cape Cod Commission study of the Route 28 corridor, the other consideration of a more general town-wide scale limitation.

“It does seem we need some information and analysis first,” she said, agreeing to check with the board of selectmen to determine if there are funds available to help with a study of residential massing. Geagan suggested asking the zoning board for a liaison to work with the planning board on the issue.

Chatham residents want the type of controls that the board is talking about, resident Gloria Freeman said. Residents are getting tired of seeing “bloated eyesores” on inappropriately sized lots that are “really an assault on our traditions and legacy,” she said, adding several Massachusetts towns, including Truro, impose limits on the scale of residential structures.

“We're all concerned about what happens to working families,” Freeman told the board. “But our lack of regulations and weak zoning bylaw in this respect encourages gentrification and big houses, many of which are only used for a few weeks out of the year.” By limiting house sizes, the board will “stand up for young, working families as well as the environment,” she said.

The discussion was continued until the board's meeting on March 12.