324 Front Street Hearing Closed, Not Resolved

The Marion Zoning Board of Appeals has closed the public hearing for Peter Douglas’ appeal pertaining to 324 Front Street, meaning it will not consider any further new information while it deliberates its decision next month. But it had plenty of new input to process during its last meeting on June 28 as to whether or not to uphold Building Commissioner Scott Shippey’s denial of Douglas’ request for zoning enforcement against Christian Loranger’s condominium development next to Douglas’ house.

Douglas submitted another 54-page packet, and his formal letter asking for the recusal of three ZBA members: Chairman Marc LeBlanc, and members Bob Alves and Michelle Smith, citing conflicts ranging from alleged prior Facebook posts about the project to some members’ positions as real estate agents Douglas says could profit from a sale of one of Loranger’s condos.

And as requested by the board, the one who performed the surveying for Loranger’s project, John Romanelli, came to explain his initial inconsistencies that are considered inaccurate compared to the latest ones.

Simply re-stated, “[This hearing] is about whether this building complies with the building permit and the three provisions of the bylaw as written,” said Douglas. Which are side setback, volume, and area. “Not about whether any of us like the bylaws or we like the building,” he claimed. For Douglas, it’s a “straight up and down case of application of bylaws.”

But it was hardly straight up and down last Thursday in the packed meeting room of attorneys, engineers, and abutters.

The conflict persists as to whether the basement Loranger had counted in the project’s overall volume and square-footage could even be considered a basement, as well as the impossible-to-improve existence of an alleged rear basement that Loranger also factored in as volume. Only affidavits and legal opinions exist to guide the board.

Douglas and his hired engineer Doug Schneider assert that a ceiling height of less than 7 feet-8 inches does not a true basement make, and maintain that the basement was less than the 50 percent above grade required to count it as area or square-footage as a footprint for the reconstruction.

Douglas’ attorney, Mark Bobrowski, in 2002 helped the Town of Marion write the very bylaw contested in this case, and now argues against how it was applied to the issuance of Loranger’s building permit.

Loranger’s attorney, Richard Burke, told the board that Douglas doesn’t even have a legal standing to bring the matter to the ZBA in the first place. “He has no legal aggrievement, no unique harm,” said Burke, and playing “zoning policeman” is not demonstrable damage.

Burke defended Romanalli’s surveying, pointing to the latest report, saying, “I think it’s fair to say that the calculations we submitted to you are more accurate than the earlier [calculations].”

He defended Loranger, saying his intent was to build a “by-right” structure, keeping within the bylaw’s requirement that the project not exceed the volume “or” area of the previous structure. “He certainly doesn’t want to be here,” said Burke. Loranger’s defense is that, with the use of the word “or”, only one had to be satisfied.

“Floor by floor … room by room … it is less square-footage [than the prior structure]; therefore, it does comply under the bylaw,” said Burke.

Romanelli defended his work and specified that he is overseen by a licensed land surveyor with whom he has worked for decades, Kurt Nunes. But he was never able to enter the supposed rear basement, leaving some ZBA members scratching their heads without any definitive proof, only an affidavit from Loranger stating he had been inside it.

Romanelli defended the discrepancies of his first calculations, saying two years ago he started his measurements from the corner board of the preexisting porch, not the 14-inch overhang as he should have.

“I was a little unclear as to what I’d actually done until I sat down and looked at the raw data,” said Romanelli. He said he also omitted other overhangs in the original.

When asked to explain why he wasn’t licensed, Romanelli said, “I do not have a four – year degree.” He took the SIT exam – the first step of two steps – and passed in 2002. But with a young family prior to that he never got the degree.

When Douglas’ hired engineer Doug Schneider took the podium, he was visibly perplexed. He listed the staircases, below-grade basement, prior porches, attic space, and other aspects of the original house that Romanelli should not have factored into square-footage. Schneider completely negated Romanelli’s report and spelled out his assertions on the scope of the project – if you exclude the front basement, Loranger’s project is still 74 percent greater in area that the original house, he claimed. Take out the attic, it’s another 29 percent bigger. But when you add in the front and rear supposed basement, its now 94 percent larger, Schneider asserted.

So, Schneider said, it is an increase in both volume and area, “And both would be subject to requirement for a special permit because it’s an increase in volume or area, depending on how you want to look at it.” Furthermore, the vertical expansion, he added, would need a variance from the ZBA.

Shippey stated that when he issued the building permit, he used the information that was submitted. “I went by the calculations of Mr. Romanelli. … At the time all the documentation seemed correct for a permit by right. Then I got conflicting documentation stating that, where this is a sensitive matter, I put it on your table,” he told the board.

“I think the appeal is my non-action to Mr. Douglas’ [request] for zoning enforcement.

I did not act on his first zoning enforcement because I believed, in my opinion … it was a permit by right. He appealed that,” said Shippey.

This is where it is going to get complex, Town Counsel Barbara Carboni explained. “My focus right now … is, the board collects all the facts it can, get the legal arguments of both sides … and we’ll have to do a little bit of figuring out later on how to make a decision.

“Keep an open mind,” Carboni told the board. “Take in all the facts.”

Bobrowski asserted that, should there have been a mistake on Shippey’s part, “Buildings come down because of that.” He said he wasn’t urging that to happen, and the Land Court has been more lenient in that regard more recently, but he cited anyway another case when after many years the judge finally ordered a building be torn down.

And as for Douglas’ legal standing, Bobrowski said, “He’s entitled to a presumption – he’s a party in interest.” Loss of privacy, diminution of property values, said Bobrowski – It’s not enough to say he doesn’t have an injury.

That was all a lot to take in, said the chairman, and despite the encroaching end to the 90-day action period, the board preferred to continue. Douglas was at first uninterested in another continuance, but he acquiesced in the end. But coming up with a date wasn’t easy since various parties were not available for the next two meetings in July.

The board had to settle on closing the public hearing to deliberate at its next meeting, but before doing so, Loranger’s wife, Aileen, came to Loranger’s defense.

“[He’s] an honest, Roman Catholic man – he’s as honest as they come,” she said. The prior house at 324 Front Street was old, decrepit, “It was not a pretty building.

“We love this town. We want to raise our family here. … We care about how it looks,” she continued. “It was built: it was based on a permit that was granted,” she said. “You need to support the man (Shippey) that you put in this position – It’s not good for a community –  it’s not.”

Also during the meeting, the board heard two other cases: Tim Harding for Evelyn Crocker, 47 Main Street, for a special permit for a one-story addition, to which ZBA member Betsy Dunn said she was an abutter and ‘recused’ herself but remained at the table and asked questions, and a special permit request for Kristina Tomlinson Revocable Trust, 12 South Street, with the request for the same exact permit to be reissued to the next owner of the property.

Both public hearings were closed but not deliberated by the board that night.

The next meeting of the Marion Zoning Board of Appeals is scheduled for July 12 at 7:30 pm at the Marion Town House.

Marion Zoning Board of Appeals

By Jean Perry


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