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Brookline Town Meeting makes Hancock Village the town's first Neighborhood Conservation District

Posted by Tom Coakley  November 16, 2011 12:43 PM

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Brookline neighbors struggle with the town’s popularity as a convenient locality near Boston, connected by several busy trolley and bus lines. Already nearly fully built-out, its neighborhoods face regular proposals for more apartments into ever-decreasing open space.

That struggle enabled an unusual collaboration of activists across Brookline’s traditional political and economic boundaries Tuesday night, as an overwhelming majority of Town Meeting voted for a new regulatory tool, called a Neighborhood Conservation District .

Less defined than an Historic District but with the ability to be more specific than zoning regulations, the Neighborhood Conservation District allows the community to determine the character of an area—taking into account the style of buildings, the size and appearance of open lots and parks and more. It cannot be used to regulate replacement windows or doors, temporary structures, regular maintenance, gutters, and removal or replacement of storm-damaged plants or buildings, but it can be applied to neighborhoods that would not qualify as “historic.”

Currently, Wellesley, Lincoln and Cambridge have such districts.

Town Meeting followed the adoption of conservation districts by applying one immediately to Hancock Village, over the objections of representatives of its owner, Chestnut Hill Realty .

Chestnut Hill Realty is proposing over 400 new units of housing and the paving over of open space at the 1940s garden apartment complex in the southwest part of town.

Most other conservation districts require the participation and agreement of at least 50 percent of the landowners in such a district. But the new district for Hancock Village only affects Chestnut Hill Realty, which does not want it, said James Shea , attorney for the company.

Further, the district “will not stop development in Hancock Village,” he said. Joe Geller, former selectman and a landscape architect working as a consultant for Chestnut Hill Realty, argued that conservation districts could be applied arbitrarily and would invite the “design police” to regulate more of Brookline homeowners’ lives.

Roger Blood, speaking for the town’s Housing Advisory Board , added a note of caution about the districts’ formation. He said that because the districts were fairly easy to pass, they could act as a deterrent on the construction of traditional affordable housing
projects, which need considerable up-front outlays to design, create construction documents, and secure financing.

A new district could halt or delay such a process, which, he said, could create a “chilling effect on potential future projects,” and jeopardize state funding.

“It may mean we see more 40B projects, which could mean reduced community control,” Blood said.

Chapter 40B , state law that allows developers to circumvent some municipal zoning restrictions in order to construct affordable housing in areas with little of it—is a possible alternative for Hancock Village, according to Shea and Geller. Shea has also told town officials that passage of the conservation district for the development may result in litigation.

But since there have been hours of public hearings and discussion about the conservation district proposal and many years of presentations on Hancock Village options, proponents hardly needed to debate the merits of the two articles.

Selectman Richard Benka , a retired attorney who drafted both proposals, said that the possibility of either 40B or litigation has always loomed. The neighborhood district, according to other proponents, will give the town better tools to regulate even 40B developments.

Community activist William Pu argued that in designating Hancock Village as a Neighborhood Conservation District through Article 6 on the Town Meeting agenda, the town was acting “to preserve the public good from the actions of a single entity.”

“Article 6 will stop insanely inappropriate development at Hancock Village,” Pu said.

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