After a two-year working process and , the Board of Aldermen last night approved a set of new residential zoning rules that could affect homeowners looking to add on to their properties.
The changes, which will take effect Oct. 15, impact the city’s floor-area ratio (FAR) regulations and the parts of a home that are factored into a property’s FAR, which is the relationship between a home’s floor space to its lot size. To view the changes, check out our photos and .pdf section.
The vote ended with just two aldermen opposing the changes – Alderman Amy Mah Sangiolo and Vice President Cheryl Lappin.
“People move into Newton and make the biggest investment of their life when they buy a house, and this plays into the decision,” Lappin said. “We’re saying (the homeowners) now have to go through a long and cumbersome special permit process.”
FAR is calculated by dividing a home’s allowable floor space by the area of its lot. For example, a 1,800-square-foot home on a 4,000-square-foot lot would have a FAR of 0.45. In the new rules, structures like garages, certain enclosed porches and some accessory buildings (depending on size) would be included in the floor space of the home.
Residents who want to add more floor space to their homes, but would exceed FAR limits in doing so, must seek a special permit from the city. Some opponents to the changes argue that this could be a daunting task for residents.
Alderman Susan Albright, though, assured the board that the special permitting process has changed over the last few years and it is much more efficient than it used to be.
While Sangiolo and Lappin commended the work done by the Planning Department, various boards and FAR working group, they both showed concern with the number of houses that would become non-conforming with the zoning change.
A “sliding scale” – similar to a scale used for tax assessments – would be used to determine a lot’s FAR; the larger the lot size, the smaller the FAR limit and therefore, less room to expand without a special permit.
“With this ordinance change, we’re changing conforming lots to non-conforming lots and changing non-conforming lots to conforming lots,” Lappin said. “We’re taking away extension opportunities to some and adding some to others.”
, which aim to prevent construction of oversized homes, now include structures like garages, certain enclosed porches and some accessory buildings (depending on size) as part of a home’s floor space of the home.
Many aldermen, though, agreed that the changes are better than the current FAR regulations.
Alderman Deb Crossley supported the changes, adding that the current rules are “confusing and rather torturous.”
“It’s not perfect, no law is perfect, but the task force did an outstanding job addressing the key concerns we have,” Crossley said.
Alderman Stephen Linsky noted that it was important to pass the changes last night to give the city enough time to notify and educate residents of the changes.
Two weeks ago, the board voted to extend the current far rules to Oct. 15, as they were set to expire Feb. 28. They delayed their vote last week to hear a presentation on the changes from the Planning Department.
Alderman Lisle Baker agreed, noting that he was willing to support the changes once he studied the facts and information provided by the working group and Planning Department.
"We have time to educate everyone with (the changes) and it will provide a benefit to the citizens," Baker said.
Alderman Marcia Johnson, the chair of the board's Zoning and Planning Committee, said at last night's meeting that the committee has requested that the Planning and Inspectional Services Departments review (with the Zoning & Planning Committee) the FAR data collected over the next eight months. The committee has also asked the group look at data tied to the new FAR regulations for a year after they go into effect.
For more information, residents can view a series of documents and presentations on FAR posted on the city's website. Residents can also contact Jen Molinksy in the Planning and Development Department or Commissioner John Lojek in the Inspectional Services Department.