For those seeking to remodel their homes in Belmont, the city’s stringent policies could soon become more resident-friendly as the council considers amending its zoning ordinance and planning process for single-family homes.
Councilmen Eric Reed and Charles Stone joined Community Development Department staff on a subcommittee to evaluate the city’s requirements and procedures for residents who seek to build or remodel their homes and are working to propose changes to alleviate some property owners’ frustration.
Currently, Belmont has a low threshold to trigger a laborious Planning Commission review for projects as small as adding a 400-square-foot addition to one’s home, according to a city staff report. The city also prohibits homes from being larger than 3,500 square feet in most areas, despite the size of one’s lot.
Reed, who was selected to serve on the Planning Commission in 2008 before being elected to the council, said much of the subcommittee’s report reflected experiences he had while working on the commission.
“I think many of our regulations are well meaning, but they have sort of often negative reactions. So you’ll get people that love the city, but will move out because their fixer-upper that they bought, they’ll move out because the regulations [to remodel] are too strict,” Reed said. “It really is a way, I think, of stripping away unnecessarily harsh regulations to allow for the betterment of Belmont. And as a sort of side benefit, if more people are able to remodel their home, the tax base the city enjoys will grow.”
The City Council emphasized amending its rules for single-family design reviews when one wants to build or remodel their home isn’t intended to permit monster developments on small lots, but to ease the process for citizens who want to grow in Belmont.
The bulk of requests city planners receive are from individuals seeking to remodel or construct homes, Senior Planner Damon DiDonato said. Compared to other cities, Belmont’s Planning Commission frequently conducts single-family design reviews for smaller projects, there’s no objective criteria for the review and the city has the most stringent parking requirements, DiDonato said.
One subcommittee suggestion was to create a tiered system for single-family entitlements in which simple requests are reviewed by staff, more complex ones by a zoning administrator and larger projects would go before the Planning Commission. The city’s Community Development Director Carlos de Melo said he currently serves as the zoning administrator and, depending on which route the council ultimately goes, may need to hire a dedicated zoning administrator.
City staff, Reed and Stone noted they frequently hear complaints from residents about the city’s onerous process for single-family home development and several property owners showed at Tuesday’s meeting in support of the discussion.
Scott Barton said he as his wife have lived in Belmont for 11 years and moved into a 2,600-square-foot home on an 8,000-square-foot lot. Barton said he wanted to remodel to account for his growing family but was frustrated to learn about the city’s hard cap on home size.
“The rule says that a lot that is a third the size of our lot could have the same size house we have,” Barton said. “We love Belmont, we love the community and the schools, but this issue makes it really difficult and expensive and we think that this idea (ordinance amendment). … would provide more tax revenue for the city and make it a better and easier place to live.”
Stone said housing opportunities in the area are growing scarce and the city needs to ease the process for those who want to expand their homes and plan for growing children or elderly parents moving in.
“We are in a housing crisis of epic proportions and when we have these restrictive ordinances that keep people from building space, what we’re really doing is helping to contribute to that housing crisis,” Stone said.
The discussion about updates to the city’s planning process for single-family homes is still preliminary and the subcommittee will continue to review current policies and come up with recommendations.
But the council agreed the Planning Commission will be better utilized working on the city’s comprehensive Belmont Master Plan update and plans for creating a downtown instead of getting bogged down with reviewing a homeowner’s request to add a bedroom.
“We are embarking on an aggressive effort towards developing downtown … If there are ways to streamline the Planning Commission work so they can focus on some of these very big issues that are coming down … so that they have the time, the bandwidth to address those issues in a timely manner and a single-family design review can still be done at a staff level,” Mayor Warren Lieberman said. “That’s probably a very good thing because it means we’ll be making even better use of those volunteering, giving their time to serve the city on the Planning Commission.”
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