'McMansion' rulling may cause homeowner headaches
A ruling by the state’s highest court gives towns more power to stop the tearing down of small homes to build larger homes, but may produce headaches for people who want to add onto their homes as well as officials charged with administering the law.
When the Supreme Judicial Court ruled against Norwell homeowner and developer J. Stephen Bjorklund in December, some lauded the decision for giving officials leverage in curbing ‘‘mansionization’’ - building large houses on relatively small lots.
But others question whether the new case law, which requires stricter review of additions and changes to homes on undersized lots, could overwhelm zoning boards and put certain renovations out of reach for homeowners.
Laura Harbottle, Scituate’s town planner, said giving town officials more control is necessary where the construction of large homes on undersized lots is wasteful and alters a neighborhood’s character.
‘‘The court was more willing to look at the needs of the community here than in some other cases,’’ said Harbottle. ‘‘In that sense, this is a groundbreaking case.’’
But other officials said the ruling puts a possibly preemptive burden on homeowners, by forcing once-routine alterations to go through the zoning board. In most towns, property owners just get a permit from a building inspector - a much simpler process.
‘‘Going before the zoning board means having a surveyor, hiring professional representation, going through a public hearing,’’ Marshfield Town Planner Paul Halkiotis said. ‘‘It could mean a three- or four-month delay and a lot of money when it’s just a simple addition.’’
Halkiotis said a zoning amendment that will go before Marshfield Town Meeting in April allows the building inspector to review projects on nonconforming lots.
The amendment, which was drafted before the Norwell ruling, uses the language of a similar bylaw adopted by Scituate in 1995.
How the ruling affects a town’s review process may depend on what provisions the town has -or puts in place - to address who handles applications.
‘‘Each community now has to look at this and decide what tolerance they have for change and at what point they wish to have review,’’ said Carl King, a Boston lawyer who wrote a brief for the American Planning Board supporting Norwell’s decision.
King said some towns already have bylaws that will soften the effects of the ruling for small projects, and other towns may enact them.
Scituate Building Commissioner Neil Duggan said he doesn’t think the court’s ruling will change the way his town reviews projects. Similar bylaws or provisions exist in Cohasset and Hull, where many lots are nonconforming.
‘‘We tried to make the application process more streamlined,’’ said Pete Lombardo, the Hull building commissioner, of changes made to Hull bylaws several years ago.
William Hovey of Duxbury, a real estate lawyer, said the ruling’s ramifications will go beyond complicating the application process.
‘‘If nothing changes, you’ll have a situation where older houses will deteriorate and you can’t do anything about it,’’ he said. ‘‘What you've done has taken away the value of the land, and it could affect the next generation.’’
Hovey said the ruling’s impact could be particularly severe on the South Shore because of the number of nonconforming lots.
Duggan, the Scituate official, said existing rebuilt homes in Scituate, at least, are legal. He said the term ‘‘mansionization’’ implies the homes are legally too big for the lot or neighborhood, which is not the case. On average, 10 homes have been rebuilt in Scituate each year in the last decade.
‘‘You can call them McMansions, but they all conform to our bylaws,’’ he said.
Kaitlin Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.