Taking stock of house law

Review blocked 7 oversized projects

A Crown Ridge Road project was cited during the fall 2007 debate over rules to limit oversized homes in Wellesley. A Crown Ridge Road project was cited during the fall 2007 debate over rules to limit oversized homes in Wellesley. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/file 2007)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / February 5, 2009
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In the year since Wellesley, amid much debate, instituted a set of regulations designed to discourage the building of large homes on small lots, five projects have been approved and seven others did not clear the new review process.

Town officials say the rules appear to be keeping so-called "home bloat" in check, though they acknowledge that the slowed economy, as much as the revamped process, could be giving builders and homeowners pause.

The anti-"McMansion" rules, which took effect Jan. 1, 2008, require proposals for new or renovated homes larger than twice the size of median homes in their neighborhoods to undergo scrutiny by the town's Design Review Board. Neighbors are invited to the review session, and are encouraged to comment.

The revamped rules followed years of local complaints about new home building in town. By 2007, the year the regulations were passed, the average new home size in Wellesley had swelled to 4,437 square feet, often overshadowing much smaller ranch or cottage-style houses on the same street.

Homeowners in the town's most tightly packed neighborhoods, where lots are 10,000 and 15,000 square feet, complained that many of the new mansions blocked their views and sunlight, caused storm water to flow onto their yards, and wrecked the character and charm of their streets.

The regulations give residents a meaningful opportunity to voice concerns, and potentially block an objectionable building project, said Rick Brown, Wellesley's planning director.

"Before, a neighbor could make a comment to the building inspector, but there was no real forum for them," he said.

Opponents, primarily local home builders and realtors, had said the new rules would make it too expensive to build homes and would slow the town's thriving housing market. The design review process costs applicants up to $2,500 in extra fees, and can involve additional legal and architectural costs to resolve issues raised by the board.

So far, it seems the rules haven't slowed the local construction market significantly, said Brown.

Last year, approximately 50 applications were filed for single-family construction or renovation permits, a figure on par with 2007, Brown said. He expects the slowing economy will likely play more of a factor this year.

Town planner Ethan Parsons said about a dozen of the applications triggered the large-home design review process.

Five projects passed the review and were given building permits; seven were rejected or withdrawn, sometimes more than once, he said.

The new review process is a shift from the traditional suburban zoning approach, based on lot size and house footprint, that was in effect in Wellesley for decades. Now, new homes are judged in conjunction with their neighborhoods.

Homes slated to have more than 3,600 square feet of total living area on 10,000-square-foot lots face review. Homes aspiring to be larger than 4,300 square feet on lots zoned for 15,000 square feet, or 5,900 square feet of living area on 20,000-square-foot lots, also trip the review threshold.

Two projects denied by the review board under the new regulations were homes slated to be built at 30 Benvenue Road and 169 Grove Street by Wellesley builder Dean Behrend. He built another home on an adjoining lot before the new regulations were passed, and has received permission to build a second one nearby under the new rules.

The projects that have been put on hold ran into trouble over issues of size, unresolved driveway easements, and landscaping, Parsons said.

The agenda for tonight's Zoning Board of Appeals hearing includes a request by Behrend to overrule the Design Review Board's rejection of his proposal. Behrend could not be reached for comment early this week.

The year-old regulations have created significantly more work for the town's Planning Department, which meets with all the applicants and project neighbors, often many times. Eight months ago, Parsons was hired as a full-time staff planner to administer the regulations, Brown said.

The workload has been less dramatic for the volunteer, five-member Design Review Board, which until last year only considered proposed commercial signs and issues related to retail and multifamily housing developments, said member Ed Hand.

Several of the large homes required just one review board meeting to be approved before heading to the Planning Board for final go-ahead.

"Our purpose was to help evaluate the impact of these projects on the neighbors and to make sure architecture is in scale and in keeping with the neighborhood it intends to be in," Hand said.

The new rules, he said, "are accomplishing that and maybe some builders are thinking, 'I'll build a little smaller so I don't have to go through it.' "

Erica Noonan can be reached at

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