Opposition to Changing Watertown’s Residential Zoning Comes Together

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Charlie Breitrose

A mock-up of the post card the Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association may send to residents.

A mock-up of the post card the Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association may send to residents.

Charlie Breitrose

A mock-up of the post card the Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association may send to residents.

A group of Watertown residents worried that changing the town’s residential zoning rules could hurt property rights is gaining strength after holding a kick-off meeting Thursday night.

The Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association’s meeting at the Apartments at Coolidge School attracted about 50 people. The group seeks to spread the word about the Residential Design Guidelines and Standards being proposed in town.

The group worries that Watertown homeowners would lose property rights, and that the restrictions could even mean a loss of property value if it is harder to make additions, or residential property cannot be easily redeveloped.

“Seniors in Watertown who own their home plan on retiring on that aren’t going to be able to sell their property for as much,” said resident Steve Messina. “Today they could get $500,000, but if they put in rules and requirements on it will be worth less. If you told someone they are taking away their Social Security, they would be up in arms.”

Residential Design Guidelines

The exact details of the proposal have not been finalized. The town’s Community Development and Planning Department has hired consultant David Gamble to help come up with a set of recommendations that would be considered by the Planning Board and Town Council. The group proposing the changes opposes tearing down homes and replacing them with larger ones or with more units, especially large ones that loom over other homes on the block.

According to the town’s website, the goals of the Residential Design Guidelines “will clarify expectations about what is permitted (and why) in order to maintain the existing neighborhood character and promote a more harmonious relationship between the existing neighborhood fabric and new construction.”

A variety of options for controlling development and protecting neighborhood character were presented at a community meeting in November. See details here.

The schedule on the town site calls for the draft Residential Design guidelines to be presented by Gamble in late January or early February.

Opposition Group Rises

Resident Curtis Whitney, one of the group’s organizers, said he heard about the plan, but did not think that the general public knew about it.

“It was brought to my attention that a group with a certain agenda presented the plan to the town. I felt, it was done with not enough notice or public debate,” Whitney said. “There were public meetings, but it should have been something people were notified in their tax bills.”

Among the proposals the group opposes is restrictions to what can be done to homes by right, such as adding a dormer or a porch, as well as, any approval required for landscaping or building design.

“Right now residents have the right to build a single family home, or a two-family home in a two-family zone. You can add a dormer, a deck or a porch, replace windows, siding or trim,” said former Town Councilor Steve Corbett. “They want to take these rights away or at least restrict them.”

The group also opposes increasing the length of demolition delays from 12 months to 24 months, and broader range for the Historical Commission to put on the delay.

Lenny Holt, one of the organizers of the Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association, said that he opposes the new requirements that would require a design plan review of all projects

“The question is not if we want good design, of course we want good design,” Holt said. “We have 120+ pages of zoning already and it take months to get a permit. A design plan review would takes months more.”

Watertown real estate agent and resident Mike DelRose attended the community meetings and saw the proposals for more attractive designs. Looking at one for Cape-style homes, he noted that instead of the tradition dormer, it would call for an extension that would change the frame of the home and require a larger foundation to be added.

“It would cost about $100,000 for a two story addition,” DelRose said. “They say it would increase the property value, but who has that sort of money.”

Taking Action

Whitney said if people knew about what was being proposed they would come out and oppose it.

“The way someone put it, it is really time to wake up the silent majority,” Whitney said. “It is important for residents to get involved.”

The group will be presenting a petition at next week’s Town Council meeting, and plans to come out at future meetings on the Residential Design Guidelines.

To spread the word about their effort, the Concerned Watertown Homeowners Association is starting a website (www.WatertownPropertyRights.org), is printing up lawn signs and may mail post cards to all property owners in town, Whitney said.

14 thoughts on “Opposition to Changing Watertown’s Residential Zoning Comes Together

  1. Many of the people quoted in the article – Curtis Whitney, Steve Corbett, Lenny Holt, and Mike DelRose – are either developers, contractors, or real estate agents (or some combination thereof). Perhaps the group’s name would be more accurate if it were The Concerned Watertown Developers Association.

    I don’t want the town telling me what kind of a dormer I can add to my roof any more than the next person. However, my understanding is that the guidelines are not going to do that. The Watertown News article cited above reported that a model Gamble was looking at “seeks to reduce the hassle of individual homeowners doing small additions.”

    I don’t want some wealthy developer tearing down the nice single family next door to put up an over-sized, featureless cube. All that does is allow the developers, their contractors, and their real-estate agents to make a windfall while making the neighborhood less attractive, less desirable, and less livable. That hurts everyone else’s property values.

    Clearly, a balance has to be struck between the rights of individual homeowners wishing to enhance their homes, and those of developers who want to cash-out and run without regard to what’s left behind. Does this mean we should prevent developers from tearing down homes and replacing them with two-families? Absolutely not. There are many examples of new two-families homes where the developer has taken into consideration the style and scale of the neighborhood and built attractive homes that have increased the local property values. Unfortunately, that’s not always been the case. That’s why some form of guidelines – especially if they make it *easier* for homeowners to make changes and additions – are needed.

  2. Dear Bill Chosiad,

    Clearly you are not suggesting that the Whitney, Corbett, DelRose and/or Holt Families are hit and run developers or that they don’t care about Watertown, even if you might have inferred it. Members of all these families have contributed their time and efforts to Watertown for generations. The record of public service speaks for itself and should not need to be defended.

    Furthermore, we respect all our neighbor’s rights to express their opinion, even if we don’t agree. Please respect our right to express an opposing position when we believe that the property rights of every Watertown Home Owner are in jeopardy.

    Your note suggests that your understanding is that “the Guidelines aren’t going to affect what type of dormer you can build.” Really? We don’t even know if the Planning Dept is talking about Guidelines or Mandates. And, therein lies the problem. Guidelines could be considered suggestions, whereas mandates could be considered ordinance changes which could affect property rights, and value.

    I encourage you to read the Town Website which summarizes the results from the Listening Sessions held last October. This document includes the question of how much control the Town should have regarding Architectural Style, Roof Forms (Note: That includes your dormer Bill), Building Siting, Garage & Parking, Siding and Materials, Facades, Porches and Entries, Detail & Fenestration, Planting & Landscaping. The aforesaid list suggests that a very broad range of control is possible.

    Our position is that we already have enough rules and regulations in the form of over 120 pages of zoning rules and regulations which control everything from size, to height, setback and floor area ratio and much more.

    Our intent is to encourage debate and make information available to every Watertown Homeowner before changes are made so that we all have input. Those of you that think we are jumping the gun need only look back to March 2015. Design Guidelines are now being proposed by our same neighbors who proposed a total moratorium on Residential Development (which the Town Counsel did not approve.)

    Finally, you know that line about “reducing the hassle of individual homeowners doing small additions.” We not only agree with you, we brought it up at our groups meeting with the Planning Department in December and it is an integral piece of our position. Again, the fact is that we all support “good design”. Where we differ in opinion is how many of our property rights the Town of Watertown should eviscerate in an attempt to reach that goal. We respectfully suggest that the Town Government should not be in the business of telling Home Owners what their property should look like from a design viewpoint whether it be the dormer on your house, the architectural style of your home or your landscaping.

  3. Thank you, Mr. Holt, for your thoughtful response.

    It strikes me that the interests of developers and the interests of homeowners may not always be in alignment. I’m sure that referring to yourselves as a homeowners group when the leadership is comprised of real estate agents and developers was not intended to mislead people, but I did raise my eyebrows when I first noticed it.

    And while the leaders of your group have indeed made great contributions to Watertown, it doesn’t mean that the reputation they maintain applies to all developers – especially those from out-of-town – who would attempt to exploit our current building boom at the expense of our residents.

    I wholeheartedly agree that it’s important to encourage debate on this important issue, and this discussion thread seems as good a place as any to do so. To take the debate further, residents should be armed with the most factual information available. To this end, when providing information, it’s important that we try to keep to the facts as much as possible and to avoid making incorrect statements that could unnecessarily spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.

    For instance, while I’m certain it was not your intention to mislead readers, your statement that the “Design Guidelines are now being proposed by our same neighbors who proposed a total moratorium on Residential Development,” does contain some factual errors. The moratorium, which was only in regard to *commercial* development and only along Arsenal Street, was proposed by residents, whereas the guidelines are being proposed by Gamble Associates who, to my knowledge, were not involved with the moratorium. It’s possible that some of the people who proposed the moratorium have attended the neighborhood guideline meetings, but without cross-referencing meeting attendance sheets with the petition signatures, I have no way of knowing whether that’s true or not. (Readers can search this site for “Council Considering Options for Arsenal Street Moratorium” for more information on the topic.)

    I respect your argument that, “we already have enough rules and regulations.” My question is, are they the right rules and regulations. Is what we currently have the best we can do, or can we do better? Personally, I think Watertown deserves better. I think it’s possible to both allow homeowners to enhance their homes as they see fit, while ensuring that tear-down projects by outside developers don’t adversely affect the character of our neighborhoods and lower our property values.

    I also agree that it’s possible (perhaps even probable) that changes to the residential guidelines could include recommendations to change the city’s ordinances. Of course, any changes will need to be approved by the planning board and the town council, so nothing will be etched in stone merely because it appears in the recommendations. We’ll need to be especially vigilant about what changes the town might attempt to make to ordinances governing residential modifications by homeowners.

    Finally, while I completely agree with you that, “Town Government should not be in the business of telling Home Owners what their property should look like,” it’s not clear to me where your group stands on tear-down replacements by outside developers. You say you support “good design,” but in what way? Would you support an ordinance if it didn’t affect a home owner’s ability to make changes but would prevent a tear-down by an outside developer from being replaced with something that was completely out-of-character for a neighborhood?

    • @ Bill Chosiad,

      As a lifelong resident of Watertown I’m glad to learn that we share common ground for Watertown’s future. Specifically, thank you for agreeing that “Town Government should not be in the business of telling Home Owners what their property should look like.” However, we disagree that those of us work in real estate should (apparently) have our opinions as Home Owners discounted any more than yours, or anyone else. In fact, there are now over 350 signatures of Home Owners on the CWHA petition opposing any new Residential Guidelines or Mandates………. and I can assure you that they do NOT all work in Real Estate.

      I am also intrigued by your statement that, “I think it’s possible to both allow homeowners to enhance their homes as they see fit, while ensuring that tear-down projects by outside developers don’t adversely affect the character of our neighborhoods and lower our property values.” Perhaps you could elaborate with regard to how you would do this? I’ll listen.

      While you’re at it would you also kindly identify which new project has “lowered property values” and/or destroyed a neighborhood in Watertown? For the record, I don’t necessarily like every house I see either, new or old. However, this reminds me of David Gamble’s story about Victorians which he recited at every public listening session. Ie. When Victorians were first built many people thought that they were either too large or too ornate. Today, Victorians represent some of the nicest architecture in our Town. Would design review have stopped them from being built when there was a group that did not like them, or did the Home Owner’s Right prevail?

      For more info, see: WatertownPropertyRights.Org

  4. Just a few additional comments on the issues raised above.
    I attended the Property Rights Rally on Thursday evening, January 7.
    I’m sure there were other concerned citizens present – but the majority were concerned developers, real estate folks and building contractors. I appreciated their concerns but was disappointed that the program was not a presentation of various points of view, and more of a rally to drum up opposition to residential design guidelines that have yet to be created. For example, we heard that addressing the issue of “tear downs” – that is, demolishing a single family home and replacing it with two homes on the same lot – would have a negative financial impact on the owner/seller. However we did not hear about the extremely lucrative profits made by those who buy houses under the radar, before they are advertised to the public on open market.
    And who does this hurt? Families with modest incomes and first time homeowners who could have afforded a $300,000 fixer-upper – but not a $750,000 condo squeezed on a small lot. Who else does this hurt? Often, neighbors who have lost shared green space, and must endure oversized, box-like structures looming over their homes.
    There were also complaints about lack of notification for Residential Design Guideline meetings. But there were 3 well-advertised neighborhood Listening Sessions in October, which a number of Property Rights folks attended. And a well-attended meeting on November 12 in which attendees were encouraged to ask questions. Much of the time allotted for questions, was taken up by members of this group who had no questions – but only used the time as a strident rallying cry for their agenda. More time should be devoted to collaborative, productive discussions about preserving a neighborhood’s character; there are ways to do this without impinging on anyone’s “property rights”.
    Watertown is in the midst of tremendously complex changes right now, and we all share the very serious obligation of looking beyond short-term gain, and making good, thoughtful decisions that will shape the character of our community for decades to come. These are sensitive issues acknowledged by Steve Magoon and David Gamble in the November Forum. There is no room for an “us and them” mentality if we are to make Watertown the best possible place to live for future generations.

  5. Clearly citizens in Watertown are smart enough to see through this self -interest group. Thank you, Susan and Bill, for stating the truth that the town is seeking to protect the character and value of Watertown’s varied neighborhoods. In my opinion, the town is taking appropriate steps in a process to halt the undermining of the character of our residential community. We must do what is best for the community, and while homeowners must maintain their right to alter their homes, doing so in ways that don’t clash with what surrounds them creates value for the homeowner, the neighborhood and for the town.

    Guidlines make it easier to plan how to enhance your home’s value while expanding the space to suit your needs. I look forward to having guidelines when I renovate my home.

    • Rena, A good exercise would be to get a bid from a contractor now Like a David Aposian on what it would cost to renovate your home before these potential guidelines are in place so you have that on record. Then, if the mandates are passed get another quote from him with what the Town is recommending. It might be a little bit more expensive. This group was formed to inform residents of Watertown of what potentially might happen. We respect your group with your opinions and that is all this is. Our opinions. It’s a discussion that we are willing to debate openly and try to inform the residents without having closed door meetings. It’s not us against your group. It’s an opinion to see if we can educate each other and come to a common goal.

  6. This is the oldest ploy in the political book. Create an organization to do the bidding of a special interest group and try to pass it of as grass roots. In a town like Watertown, the interests of homeowners and families on one hand, and developers, large property owners, contractors and real estate professionals on the other hand, likely do not coincide.

    This group seems designed to whip up fear by playing fast and loose with the facts. I hope Watertown residents will get involved, examine the real facts, and base their opinions on their best interests and that of the town as a whole, and ignore this propaganda campaign which has the fingerprints of special interests all over it.

    • Joe,

      You obviously know nothing about who are group is. A majority of our Group have ties to Watertown for close to 100 years and we still live here!! I’m guessing you do not. Political Book. I didn’t know one existed. Cut and paste that “oldest ploy” so I can read it and maybe use it some time. . While you are at it, if you know all the facts about the design guidelines, please share them with the public and us so we can better educate ourselves.

      • Ok, Ari, so you are claiming that longevity in Watertown is proof of love of the town? Of good intentions? Many people who have lived here a short period of time really care about the place because they CHOSE to live here.

        So I have less right to participate in the debate? I have spent a lot of my time trying to help my neighbors get better public transportation. But that doesn’t matter? Just how long one has lived here?

        Many people are concerned about the changing character of our neighborhoods and rightly so. If you really are so concerned about the town, cut the inflammatory rhetoric and join the discussion that centers on solving problems and preserving the best aspects of Watertown.

          • Ari, it is quite clear that the leadership of your group is involved in development, construction or real estate and so there is considerable self interest involved. Also the signs pictured seem worded in such a way as to alarm folks about the Design Guidelines. So I stand by what I said.

            Please stop trying to blow smoke on the issue by making not so clever personal attacks toward me.

            Many people are very concerned about the changes that are over-whelming our town. They are right to have these concerns, as Watertown could be unrecognizable ten or fifteen years from now.

            I don’t know of any one or any group who is working from a motivation of taking other residents rights away. There are many, however, who are motivated by the desire for sensible protections for their neighborhoods–protections that will benefit all residents. Maybe not quite as lucrative for some, but reasonable for all in the end.

  7. Yes, I am a Realtor that has sold Homes in Watertown for almost 30 years. I am also a Rotary Club member and a member of many other organizations in this town. I have been invested in this community as a homeowner and a parent with only one left at the High School. My love and knowledge of this community is no different than most of us trying to do what we know in our hearts is right for Watertown and it’s future. Just last month I sold a home to a developer. This family of 4 would have put $80 to $100,000 less in their nest egg had they sold to a buyer that would have needed to spend $200K to renovate this home. Fortunately they were able to maximize their equity. The 2nd developer of their home went in front of the Historical commission with a great design that made the town and the neighborhood happy with the first try. The first developers plan was rejected as it should have been and he walked away from the project. OUR CURRENT TOWN GUIDELINES AND PROCESS WORKS. In my opinion we need to have a meeting of residents and agree to disagree but no matter how long it takes we must find common ground and stand united. I have always been and always will be an optimist. http://www.watertownpropertyrights.org

  8. To Joe,

    I agree that we all want the best for the Town. We are Real Estate Agents, Contractors, Developers, but most importantly we are homeowners and all live in Watertown. I believe that the frustrations is with all these massive projects that have happened. It has changed what Watertown was. I believe some is for the better & some I have learned to live with. Our concern is not just the development but the potential of the Town mandating what the homeowner can do. We just want the Town to involve all the residents and not only the ones who are in favor. If you read the posts at the beginning our group was attacked. Enjoy the day!

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