Residents of wellesley engaged in a debate over the issue of mansionization this past fall, culminating in the adoption of the town’s first real measure to regulate large houses. The debate was stimulating and emotional: the issue directly affects peoples’ homes, provoking strong feelings pro and con. Some members of the community feel that the proliferation of super-sized homes threatens to destroy the character of the town. Others feel that replacing older homes with large modern homes is essential to maintaining property values and protecting the town’s future. The long history of the controversy over mansionization in Wellesley also added to the emotion of the discussion. Wellesley Town Meeting had considered, and rejected, all meaningful measures to stem the growth of large houses since at least 1987, several times following very vigorous debate.
As chairman of the Wellesley Planning Board during the latest debate on mansionization, I heard both sides of the story. I had also read extensively on the issue in my private practice of law. Now that the new regulation is in place, it is worth saying a few words about what we have accomplished, and where things will go from here.
Traditional zoning is based on segregating compatible uses into geographic districts and on stipulating strict numerical controls over building dimensions. Regulation of houses in Wellesley was entirely based on traditional zoning until this fall.
It was clear from the history of the issue in Wellesley that the town would have to turn away from traditional zoning if it really wanted to get control of oversized houses. Simple numerical controls over building dimensions could not be expected to remedy concerns about mansionization. A case-by-case approach would be needed, one that is flexible enough to account for the innumerable variations in neighborhoods and individual lots in the community. Thus, the Planning Board proposed, and Wellesley Town Meeting adopted this fall, a flexible process for reviewing large homes. The process is selective. Only oversized homes, which exceed a threshold of livable area, will be subject to the review process. Owners or developers of oversized homes must submit their plans for Planning Board evaluation under specified standards spelled out in the Zoning Bylaw. Whether a design is suitable will be subject to judgment according to written standards. The purpose of the evaluation is to balance the competing interests of neighbors with those of owners and builders.
Such a process of reviewing individual house projects has never, at least in our area, been tried on the scale that Wellesley is attempting, or in such dense, traditional, inner suburban neighborhoods. Neighborhoods of smaller lots make up over 50 percent of Wellesley.
Several important lessons and issues for the future emerged from the vigorous public dialogue leading up to Town Meeting:
Modern housing trends are at odds with the tradition of a green and leafy suburb. Contemporary houses tend to be two and three times the size of homes that were built 25 years ago. This means that the houses themselves can overpower their environment, especially in dense neighborhoods. Front yards and rear yards, collectively, serve to create a park-like setting in a suburb, especially a thickly settled one. Oversized houses tend to break up the flow of contiguous back or front yards, and to shift the visual impact of a neighborhood away from trees, shrubs, and grass towards buildings, pavement, and cars.
Regulating the redevelopment of Wellesley raises different concerns from those that the town faced during most of the 20th century. Simple dimensional regulations may be adequate when tracts of houses are built on previously undeveloped land, as was the case when many of the existing homes in Wellesley were built. New home construction in Wellesley, today, usually means a teardown on one lot in an established neighborhood and construction of a replacement home. The key to successful regulation of redevelopment such as this is fitting a modern house into a neighborhood of older homes in a way that does not make the existing homes look out of place, or leave their owners feeling displaced. Our large house review process is a new kind of regulation and also a process for learning how to better manage redevelopment of single-residence neighborhoods.
Regulating single-family homes through a review process is going to involve a period of learning. Even with ten years of experience with comparable regulations in Weston, and eight years of experience in Lincoln, to look back on, the process is still new compared with other land use regulations. The town will have to gradually refine its collective sense of what essential characteristics Wellesley needs to protect in order to maintain its residential neighborhoods.
The public process must be managed in a way to maintain cordiality among neighbors. Heated debate about single-family homes can seriously detract from community spirit. The Planning Board and residents will have to conduct themselves so that the process centers on a civil dialogue. The success of Wellesley’s large house review regulation will require leadership from town boards, and a willingness to learn on the part of all who participate.
As chairman of the Wellesley Planning Board, and a resident, I look forward to the large house review that was just implemented in January. This will be the beginning of a new kind of dialogue in town, which I hope will lead to the enhancement of the beautiful community that Wellesley already is, and an opportunity to build new connections among members of the community.