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Debates expected on zoning changes

Waltham to hold hearing on topic tomorrow night

The forecast for City Hall tomorrow night is stormy.

The public will get its chance to comment on proposed zoning changes that would affect the appearance and size of development in Waltham. A hearing will be held in the City Council chambers.

Opponents say that the proposed ordinances go too far, restricting not only ''sideways condos" and multifamily houses, but other types of buildings as well. Supporters say that some kind of regulation is necessary to keep development from infringing on the rights of neighbors and changing the character of neighborhoods.

Last year, the city hired Ralph Willmer, a consultant with McGregor Associates, to help revise the city's zoning ordinances. Originally the revisions were intended to address concerns about the density of sprawling luxury apartment blocks and other multifamily housing, condominiums built so that units face other houses instead of the street, and multifamily housing that clash with the surrounding neighborhood. The city is also considering ordinances that could restrict the size of new houses and additions, and that would change the rules for calculating how large a new structure could be on site after one has been torn down.

One especially controversial proposal would eliminate the classification known as ''old lots" or ''small lots," which are undersized lots that predate zoning ordinances. Without that classification, some of them would not have enough frontage or square footage to be considered buildable.

Mayor Jeannette McCarthy said she is ''concerned" about the scope of the revisions. ''I don't wish to hurt the small family homeowner," she said, adding that she is opposed to eliminating the small-lot classification. She said she is more worried about the density currently allowed on sites like that of the former Waltham Hospital, which is zoned to accommodate up to 348 units. The mayor wants to prevent similarly scaled development on sites such as Lincoln Woods and a parcel owned by the Stigmatine religious order on Lexington Street.

The mayor said she has met with several citizens and has asked the law department to review the implications of the proposed zoning changes.

''Ultimately it's the city departments that will have to [enforce] this, so if there's confusion now, we have to get it straightened out," McCarthy said.

Developer Roberto Pandolfi and his company, Sachem Realty, set up a website accusing Willmer of seeking ''to completely revamp the city's current zoning bylaws and severely restrict owners' rights to renovate or modernize their properties." And on March 16, Pandolfi also purchased a full-page ad opposing the changes in the Waltham News Tribune.

Willmer, speaking by phone from San Francisco, where he was attending a planning conference, said he had not seen the website. But he said the changes were not intended to prevent homeowners from doing simple renovations or modernization.

''First of all, this is part of a larger project, so my charge is to look at the Waltham zoning ordinance and update it, fix some problems with it," he said. ''There are inconsistencies, there are a number of places where the ordinance has to be modernized."

Pandolfi said that, as a 32-year Waltham resident, he cared about the city and wanted to find some middle ground.

''We want to come to a resolution that would benefit developers, homeowners, and the City Council -- there is something that would make everybody happy," Pandolfi said.

Pandolfi said the proposed changes go beyond the scope of controlling overdevelopment and violate property owners' rights.

But Lesya Struz, a member of the Waltham Land Trust and an advocate for ''smart growth" in the city, said development has to be regulated somehow because it does not affect just the landowner and builder.

''How much pressure can you put on a community before everything starts falling apart?" Struz said. ''How much more can this land take? How many acres are you going to asphalt over and put concrete over?"

Doris Donovan, a Waltham native and longtime neighborhood activist, called development ''out of control."

She said it threatens to further ensnarl traffic and overwhelm city services.

Donovan, president of the Waltham Council of Neighborhood Advocates, sent out notices to residents urging them to attend tomorrow night's hearing.

City Council president Edmund P. Tarallo, who listed the zoning revision as one of the top priorities of his tenure, said that many of the concerns he has heard from his Ward 2 constituents have to do with small lots, with opinions for and against increased regulation about evenly divided.

At-Large Councilor Paul J. Brasco said he has received 35 inquiries from residents about the proposals.

''We want to see change, but we're attacking it the wrong way," Brasco said.

Ward 9 Councilor Robert G. Logan, who chaired the Ordinance and Rules Committee, which is presenting the revisions, emphasized that ''nothing in the proposal is cast in stone yet."

''I think its important for people to know that they have the option to speak, and we will be listening, and we will give serious consideration to the testimony given," Logan said. ''I guarantee that there will be amendments, I can't guarantee what those amendments will be. But I've never seen anything come out of council looking the same way it went in."

The hearing, which is to be held jointly by the council and the Board of Survey and Planning, will start at 8 p.m. in the City Council chambers.

City Clerk Russ Malone said he was preparing the chambers and corridors to accommodate up to 250 people. If more than that show up, the hearing could be adjourned for the night and then rescheduled for the next day in a larger venue, such as the high school.

Residents also can submit statements or comments in writing, either in advance or at the meeting. Advance statements should be sent to the city clerk's office at City Hall.

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