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State senator’s addition in JP incites neighbor’s lawsuit

The property at 3-5 Bremen Terrace is owned by state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Just last year at this time, state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and her husband bought a Jamaica Plain duplex with an eye toward expansion for their growing family; by fall, they hosted an open house for the neighbors, unveiling plans to build out a half-story attic for maximum space.

But the home addition that went up in a single day last month was hardly what some neighbors had in mind.

It became, as one put it, a “house upon a house,” that suddenly dominated the modest, attractive two- and three-story homes in this quiet corner of the city, tucked away from the tangled traffic of Forest Hills and the Arborway.


The height of it — and the heft of it — are drawing stares from many neighbors and a lawsuit from one of them, who’s suing not only Chang-Diaz and her husband, but also the city, for allowing the construction to occur. Brian Wells filed a complaint in Suffolk Superior Court on Monday contending that the couple still doesn’t have the long-form permit required for structural construction work — and that the city looked the other way, affording special treatment to an influential politician.

“Without a permit from a long-form application, structural work is prohibited,” he wrote in his complaint.

City officials could not provide such a permit to the Globe on Thursday. Bonnie McGilpin, a spokeswoman for the mayor, would not discuss the case, saying only, “Due to the ongoing litigation, we cannot comment at this time.”

Chang-Diaz, a former teacher who became the first Latina elected to the state Senate in 2008, acknowledged in a brief interview that the addition increased her house from two floors and an attic to “three floors and an attic.”

But she said she has been assured by the architect and the city — as recently as Thursday — that the height meets current zoning requirements.


“We did everything we could to be good neighbors in the months leading up to construction,” she said in an e-mail. “We went door to door to invite neighbors on our adjacent streets to an open house at our home to show everybody the plans.”

She noted that Wells did not object to the building plans she and her husband personally took to show him, adding that she wished “he had expressed his reservations to us when we solicited his input and support, before we committed our life savings to this renovation.”

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (center) said she wished her neighbor “had expressed his reservations to us when we solicited his input and support, before we committed our life savings to this renovation.”Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2013

In Wells’s view — or lack of a view; his city-facing windows have been blocked by the construction — the soaring addition is out of character with the neighborhood, which is dotted with two- and three-family houses that have been expanded with the addition of dormers, rather than full stories.

The neighborhood’s residential zoning calls for houses to stand three stories or 35 feet tall. And while the zoning board approved a variance to expand the house beyond its permitted floor area ratio, Wells contends the city’s Inspectional Services Department overlooked a height violation, letting the building grow to over 45 feet.

“The height has never been flagged by ISD, and I believe it should have,” said Wells.

While the growth may have been unintentional on the couple’s part — “I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt,” Wells said Thursday in an interview — he wants to see the senator’s house match the character of the rest of the neighborhood.


And even as construction workers installed windows yesterday, Wells said he believes that’s still possible: The couple proposed removing the newly constructed addition on Wednesday, he claimed, after receiving his lawsuit and a call from the Globe. Chang-Diaz did not respond to inquiries to confirm that, however.

A spokeswoman for the Inspectional Services Department maintained that the renovation complies with zoning regulations for height, pointing to differences in interpretations in the location from which the height is measured.

Wells said in his lawsuit that an inspector refused to let him copy or review the building designs and documents filed with the city, contending they were not public. The city did provide a copy of the plans submitted by the couple to the Globe on Thursday.

Chang-Diaz and her husband, Bryan Hirsch, bought the two-family in May 2014 for $700,000 and hosted a fall open house for neighbors that doubled as an informational session on their renovation plans. They even provided form letters so neighbors could offer their consent. Wells did not attend the session but was among those who signed his consent later.

“They have explained to me that they want to convert their attic into a livable third floor,” states the letter Wells signed, provided by Chang-Diaz. “To do this will require raising the roof 6 to 7 feet,” increasing the livable space 600 square feet over the area permitted by zoning regulations. “This has no negative impact on me or my neighborhood,” the letter went on. “I see no reason why this should not be approved.”


But some neighbors say the house rising in their midst now is not what they signed up for.

“It’s larger than we thought it was going to be,” said Jay Sisom, who lives on Lennoco Road behind Chang-Diaz.

“Technically they did just go up,” Sisom said. But with the vaulted ceiling, he added, “the third floor is more like one and a half floors.”

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert