Not everyone on the Marion Planning Board was ready on April 17 to interfere with the 324 Front Street appeal that resident Peter Douglas lodged with the Zoning Board of Appeals, but the majority of the board felt that a response to the ZBA’s request for comment should be a strong recommendation to review the volume calculations of Christian Loranger’s condominium project, which Douglas presented as being egregiously deflated by Loranger.
The argument is the interpretation of the zoning bylaw pertaining to the footprint of a replacement non-conforming structure, which cannot exceed the footprint of the prior non-conforming structure. Furthermore, Douglas – and now most board members – insists the intent of the bylaw precludes the use of basement and attic space as additional living space if it was not used as living space in the original structure; however, they recognize that bylaw does not distinguish between “volume” and “sub-surface volume.”
According to Douglas, Loranger is using basement and attic space as additional living space within the four-unit condo development.
Douglas (and most of the board) also feel that the terms “basement” and “cellar” are not well-defined in the bylaw when it comes to usable living space.
When Douglas announced that his scheduled appeal hearing with the ZBA for that Thursday was to be postponed until May 24 at the request of two ZBA members, the Planning Board responded with a couple gasps and ‘wows.’
“Must not be important,” commented board member Norm Hills, who had drafted a response to the ZBA to revisit the volume calculations Loranger submitted.
Douglas said he had theories as to why the hearing was postponed, and he offered up a bit of speculation, but Planning Board member Andrew Daniel hesitated to entertain it further.
“I don’t think we should hear about speculation,” Daniel said, “I think that would be inappropriate.”
Douglas was still allowed to make further comment on his case, and he insisted it wouldn’t be out of place for the Planning Board to take the position that the bylaw should be interpreted as above-grade volume as the only allowable volume – barring a special permit – which Loranger did not require under the application he submitted.
But Douglas and the board acknowledged the two possible interpretations of that bylaw.
“There are many, many issues like that that need clarification [in the existing bylaws],” said Planning Board member Steve Kokkins.
Planning Board member Will Saltonstall pointed to the bylaw codification subcommittee that is currently reviewing such bylaws that are considered subjective in language and interpretation, saying, “The bylaw codification committee did specifically look at these issues … that are questions that came about as a result of some of the interpretations of this case…”
“They are actively looking at those.… They’re a priority for sure,” said Saltonstall.
Planning Board Chairman Eileen Marum, who is also on that bylaw codification subcommittee, gave her interpretation that volume applied only to what was in existence in the prior structure before reconstruction, “unless … a different footprint is authorized by a special permit by the ZBA.”
As the discussion continued, Daniel questioned why the board was involving itself with this particular case as opposed to other recommendation requests from the ZBA.
“Why would we dive this deep into this particular case? We have a ZBA and a zoning official.… What is really the role of the Planning Board to insert itself into this particular case?”
Hills simply stated, because the ZBA asked for their opinion.
Marum said, “You drive down the street and you look at that structure, I mean, it towers above all the houses.… You have people gazing down in your backyard … this is a quality of life issue.”
Saltonstall said it would behoove the board, “To at least say something…. A potential misalignment of the volume calculations that the Zoning Board should look at carefully, and take action swiftly…. I think we need to make an official response and it could just be, Zoning Board, do your job.…”
Marum said alleged miscalculations could have put the project 33% over the allowed volume.
“I’m afraid that by doing this we’re stepping on a bunch of different toes,” said Daniel.
Planning Board member Jennifer Francis voiced her own concerns about the project.
“This is a case where there are some major issues,” she stated, saying the board should make its feelings known to the ZBA, “…and not just a wishy-washy recommendation. There appear to be some serious errors that have been brought into the project and we need to do something. It concerns me that we’re waiting until May.… In the meantime, construction is going to continue and I’d like to raise the question, what can we do to stop construction until this is resolved?”
Not much, said Hills.
“This could be setting a precedent,” said Marum. “If this … development slips through, there may be others in the future and other neighborhoods could be impacted. I don’t think there’s anyone in this town that hasn’t gone by this site.”
Marum wondered if the Planning Board could somehow find a way to stop further construction until the ZBA hearing in May, although the board conceded it could not.
“They’re asking for a recommendation … so we have to make a substantial recommendation … to please review,” said Marum, adding, “You can’t use a basement and you can’t use an attic.”
A number of residents had words of opposition about Loranger’s project, including Judith Rosbe who said, “People in town are really just outraged at this structure….”
Bill Saltonstall said, “This is kind of a bad dream for me because I’ve seen all this happen before under the same provision … at Cottage Street where the same developer built the condominium at the corner of School Street.…”
Continuing, Saltonstall stated, “I think ‘basement’ and ‘cellar’ in the past were two different things. A cellar was below grade…. A basement was a different kind of a thing – high enough to have windows, to have a doorway, and to be used as a living space. We lost track of that difference, there’s just no reason … an old cellar without any living space in it … should be used as a basis for the area and the volume of the replacement structure. That’s just crazy and it shouldn’t happen – We’ve got to get on top of this bylaw and improve it – This is the second time around and it shouldn’t happen again…”
Resident Hans Ziegler asked what remedies are available should Loranger complete his project before the ZBA reviews the appeal.
“Whatever the Zoning Board or town counsel or a judge decides,” said Will Saltonstall. “It just makes it tougher as the building continues to be constructed…. On another level, they could rule … [to] take the top floor off it.”
But time is of the essence, added Saltonstall, adding that he was surprised to hear the ZBA delayed its hearing.
Either way, said Douglas, he would be there on Thursday to express the urgency of the matter and argue that Loranger’s volume data “is completely inaccurate,” and cautioned all Town boards: “You leave yourselves to being open for being seen as responsible for … yet another Cottage Street,” adding that anyone who doesn’t “fight tooth and nail” against the project is “a badge that they will wear for a very long time to come.”
Marum, as a member of that bylaw codification subcommittee, reassured everyone, “I am concerned … about this particular development and I will be at the meeting on Thursday … and I will be making a comment because I don’t think you can allow a building like this … to continue. This is the second one and we need to get a handle on this. It’s just gone too far.”
The next meeting of the Marion Planning Board is scheduled for April 30 at 7:00 pm at the Marion Town House.
Marion Planning Board
By Jean Perry