Project on illegal footing, city says
Board ponders fate of $240k backyard wall
In a city where officials say people are too often building first and asking permission later, Albert Pinkhasov and the $240,000, three-tiered retaining wall he built in his backyard in Newton’s Oak Hill section could be where the line in the sand is drawn.
The Lovett Road resident said that he was assured by his surveyor the project would conform to all zoning regulations, but that as an inexperienced builder he had no idea he would need a special permit and engineering approval from the city before setting the masonry-block structure into the hillside behind his home. He said it not only improves the look of his backyard but also corrects drainage problems.
“In the end, it is my mistake, I take responsibility,” said Pinkhasov, who is originally from Uzbekistan. “But I swear to God, honestly, I never did something intentionally.”
However, Newton’s commissioner of inspectional services, John Lojek, said he isn’t interested in hearing excuses, and noted that he sees this happening over and over across the city.
“It was done without permission, it was done without engineering approval, without a special permit,” Lojek said.
“I think a lot of people think it’s easier to build first, apologize, and then get permission, but the aldermen have a say in that, and they don’t have to give forgiveness.”
At the Board of Aldermen’s meeting last week, many of its members didn’t sound like they were in the mood to make any more exceptions.
“This is a real problem in the city,” said Alderman John W. Harney. “I’m frankly tired of this happening over and over again.”
Alderwoman Cheryl Lappin said, “Essentially, we would be saying you can do anything you want.”
Several other members voiced agreement, and despite a previous vote by the board’s Land Use Committee in favor of granting the special permit, Pinkhasov’s request appeared headed for defeat before a parliamentary maneuver postponed the issue until April 22.
Without the special permit, which requires two-thirds majority support, or 16 votes, from the full Board of Aldermen, Pinkhasov would have to remove the wall, and then draft a design that complies with the city’s zoning regulations before he could rebuild it, according to Lojek.
The reengineering project could cost $100,000, according to Pinkhasov.
“I cannot take it down, it would be impossible,” he said.
Pinkhasov said he would go to court to fight the denial.
“I built this nice house with a beautiful backyard,” he said. “Right now, I don’t know what else I could do.”
Pinkhasov and his family moved to the United States in 1996, and settled in Needham. A few years ago, he said, he and his wife and their two sons decided to move and build their own home in Newton.
They purchased a house on Lovett Road, tore it down, and started building a replacement in 2012.
Pinkhasov said the original backyard “was a disaster for me.”
He said the steep hill was not only an eyesore, but had created flooding problems in the previous home’s basement.
He said his building plans originally called for a 4-foot-high retaining wall. After construction of the wall was started, however, it became clear that the single level would not be sufficient to hold back the hill.
So instead of the original $90,000 wall, Pinkhasov said, he decided to build the three-tiered structure, at nearly triple the cost, unaware that the new dimensions would conflict with the neighborhood zoning’s side setback requirements.
According to a report from the city’s Planning Department, “The applicant built a system of retaining walls for this slope without understanding that a system of walls in excess of four feet total requires a special permit if the walls are located within a setback.
“The side setback for this district is 15 feet, and the walls are within 18 inches on the left side of the lot, and within three feet on the right. A special permit is required to maintain this wall system.”
Pinkhasov said a city building inspector came to his home during construction of the wall and inquired about the setback, but after assurances from his surveyor that the wall was in compliance, Pinkhasov proceeded with the work.
He said he was not aware of any problems until the city’s inspection department got a complaint from a neighbor about lights on Pinkhasov’s property, and sent an inspector who then reviewed the final site plan and notified him of the need for a special permit.
The light issue has since been resolved, officials said.
At the meeting last week, an alderman said that some neighbors were not pleased with the wall. However, other neighbors said they have no problems with what Pinkhasov has built.
David Gordon lives diagonally across Lovett Road from Pinkhasov’s property, and said he can see the wall from his home.
“I happen to think this is one of the nicest retaining walls I’ve ever seen, and once the landscaping is complete, I think it will be absolutely stunning,” he said.
Gordon also said he is “flabbergasted” that aldermen are even considering denying Pinkhasov the special permit.
“Personally, I think that would be a tragedy,” he said.
The report from the city’s Planning Department found that “the proposed retaining wall will not adversely affect the neighborhood.”
The board’s Land Use Committee recommended that the special permit be approved as long as substantial landscaping is done, and drainage requirements fulfilled.
According to Alderwoman Susan Albright, who sits on the Land Use Committee, making Pinkhasov remove the wall would create drainage problems not only for his property, but potentially for his neighbors as well.
“I’m not comfortable to always give forgiveness, but I think, in this case, it’s the right thing to do,” she said.