Residents divided over a proposed moratorium on tear-downs spent more than three hours Wednesday night debating whether the move is needed to save the city’s character, or would simply cause unnecessary financial hardship for those who can least afford it.
More than 200 people packed the Board of Aldermen’s Zoning and Planning Committee meeting, a turnout that chairwoman Marcia Johnson said she has seen exceeded only in the early 2000s, when off-leash dog areas were on the agenda. Interest in the topic prompted to panel to hold its hearing in the board’s main chamber in City Hall.
The tone of the discussion was polite as 47 residents took three-minute turns to give their views on the proposal, which would put a temporary halt to permits for razing single- and two-family homes in certain circumstances.
The measure would prevent the full or partial demolition of homes where a replacement structure more than 20 percent larger than the original is planned, meaning most additions would also be paused. The proposed moratorium would expire no later than Dec. 31, 2015.
The moratorium’s sponsor, Alderwoman Amy Mah Sangiolo, said the measure is needed to force changes in a zoning code that allows smaller homes to be replaced by homes two and three times bigger, or multifamily dwellings, changing the character of neighborhoods, killing trees, and reducing the number of moderately priced properties in the city.
“Maybe a moratorium is a drastic move,” Sangiolo said, “but something needs to be done, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
She has proposed a number of specific zoning changes that she says could be passed immediately to solve several issues.
Alderwoman Deborah Crossley said she thinks the moratorium is the wrong approach.
“It is a careless reaction to the work we must do to plan responsibly for Newton’s future,” she said.
Crossley said the restriction would cause harm to residents and the local economy, infringe on people’s property rights, put building professionals and construction workers out of work, and reduce their patronage at local shops and restaurants.
“It would be punishing many for the perceived convenience and aesthetic preference of the few,” she said.
Crossley said the Board of Aldermen needs to work with the mayor to make comprehensive zoning reform a priority, and hire additional planning staff and consultants if needed.
Residents who spoke at the hearing were about evenly divided over the moratorium, echoing either Sangiolo’s or Crossley’s views.
“In the last three years I have seen my neighborhood change with breathtaking speed,” said Rick Jacobson, who lives on Crescent Street. “A one-year moratorium is just that,” he said. “It seems like the responsible thing to do.”
Stephen Reuys, of Oak Hill Park, said the city has lost its sense of neighborhood.
“If Newton wants to be a city that only the rich can afford, they are becoming that,” he said.
Elaine Rush Arruda, who lives on Commonwealth Avenue near Auburn Street, said she, too, has seen her neighborhood drastically change with “out-of-character structures” and “socioeconomic changes.” She said the loss of open and green spaces is turning her neighborhood into a construction zone.
“Many flabbergasted residents like myself are asking how this can happen,” she said, warning that without the moratorium and other zoning changes, Newton would become “a very different city than the one we know now.”
But others pointed to the personal hardships that a moratorium would cause.
Some talked about older residents looking to recoup as much equity as possible in selling their homes to help pay for their retirement, or those needing to build an addition to their property to accommodate an aging parent or other relative.
Brian Rooney said he and his wife both grew up in Newton, are schoolteachers, and recently purchased a home near the Horace Mann School to move into with their four children.
The house, he said, needs extensive alterations.
“If the moratorium passes, we will not be able to do the work. We would have to sell, and there would be no buyers,” he said.
“We want you to recognize that families like ours will be affected,” he said.
Stefanos Efstratoudakis, a Newton resident and builder with projects in Newton, Wellesley, and Boston’s Back Bay, said stopping all building to solve zoning issues would be like stopping all traffic to solve back-ups.
He called Newton’s regulations already strict, and cited the city’s requirement that any tree taken down be replaced “inch for inch” compared with Wellesley’s “inch to half-inch” replacement rule.
In addition, he said, modern energy-saving construction methods and design features mean the carbon footprints of new homes, even bigger ones, are far smaller than that of the older, drafty homes with out-of-date systems that they would be replacing.
“Moratoriums do not create beautiful cities, they just stop things,” he said.
The Zoning and Planning Committee will discuss the moratorium at its next meeting, on Oct. 27, before deciding on its recommendation to the full board, whether to pass, deny, or take no action on the proposal.
As a zoning amendment, the moratorium would need to gain two-thirds approval, or 16 votes from the 24-person board, to take effect.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.