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Town Meeting Approves Neighborhood Conservation Districts, Hancock Village NCD

Town Meeting approves the contested Warrant Articles 5 and 6, establishing neighborhood conservation districts, and setting Hancock Village as the first such district.

Article 5, the , and article 6, establishing an NCD at Hancock Village were at last night's . Although the Board of Selectmen moved an , Town Meeting voted for an unamended version of the article, which passed with a vote of 181 for, 35 against, and three abstaining. Article 6, with no amendments proposed, passed with a 200 to 24 vote. 

James Shea, a lawyer for Chestnut Hill Realty (CHR), the developers of Hancock Village came with a powerpoint presentation explaining the flaws he and CHR saw in the articles. 

"Article 6 will not stop development in Hancock Village, and this will leave the town with article 5, enabling legislation that has been rushed to be voted at this town meeting, in order to stop a perceived threat of development in Hancock Village."

Among CHR's concerns, Shea pointed to a 2004 study of NCDs performed by the town. One of the recommendations of the town's consultant was that the neighborhood have 50 percent approval of becoming an NCD before the formation of one. He said that most of the recommendations in that study were not followed. 

Shea concluded, “What we are left with is an over-broad article that governs all changes in a district. You can’t mow your lawn in one of these districts without being studied or getting a waiver. “

There was a murmur in the audience at this comment. 

A member of the Brookline Neighborhood Alliance, William Pu had a presentation as well, explaining the history of the Hancock Village development.  He described negotiating with the developer as "unproductive," in the two-and-a-half years since the formation of the Hancock Village Planning Commission.

After each proposal was put forth by the developers, Pu pointed out that the number of units they proposed never changed. Each iteration was a maximum buildout with green spaces paved over. 

Scott Gladstone called it "a literal case of trying to pave paradise and put up a parking lot."

"The problem isn't a lack of process," Gladstone explained, "the problem is Chestnut Hill Realty's lack of listening."

He also noted that CHR engineers had worked within the zoning bylaw to make the development fit, making arguments that a 6-story building would be within the 35-foot height restriction. He also said they suggested building the houses sideways, to minimize the "back" yard set backs, by labeling them as side yards.

Selectman Dick Benka explained that NCDs don’t focus on architectural details, but on scale, massing, and architecture within the character of existing neighborhood. 

A number of proponents pointed to the flexibility of an NCD, as compared to the rigid regulations on a local historic district (LHD). While homes in a historic district have many requirements designed to maintain the history of that neighborhood, an NCD allows neighborhood members to define the aesthetic.

"There is no process here. There is basically a delegation through a non-elected board yet to be chosen without any guidelines," Shea commented.

Benka also noted that the Selectmen are working on a charge to give to the appointed neighborhood conservation commission, who would oversee the NCD and issue certificates of appropriateness to projects in the neighborhood.

Pu added, "That you can’t mow your lawn without a study or a waiver: that’s hyperbole and misleading."

Roger Blood, a precinct 13 Town Meeting member and member of the Brookline housing advisory board (HAB), came not to urge Town Meeting one way or another, but to express the HAB's concerns. He said there was "uncertainty regarding adoption of NCD, and complicated development."

One of the HAB's concerns is that the NCD could add another hurdle to funding of affordable housing projects. Priority for state aid often goes to projects which are "shovel-ready," which seeking approval from a neighborhood conservation commission could affect.

Said Selectman Benka, "The spectre of a 40b project looms, regardless of what we do with article 6. But doing nothing is not acceptable."

Chestnut Hill Realty lawyer and former selectman Joe Geller said that article 6 will not stop development, will cause a 40B filing, "and in our opinion is bad public policy.”

Three amendments were moved at town meeting:

  • Call for a written report after a near of any NCD's formation. The Selectmen approved this amendment.
  • Exemption school and town projects. The Selectmen approved this amendment as well.
  • Call for public hearing on the NCD within 21 days of formation. The selectmen opposed this amendment.

All three amendments were voted down, leaving Town Meeting to vote on an unamended version of the article. 

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