Reforming how Belmont property owners can remodel their homes is underway as the Planning Commission expressed support Tuesday night for a new tiered review system after listening to residents’ varied and often emotional opinions about potential changes.
The commission, however, decided to continue a larger discussion to a March 31 meeting when it could tackle dozens of proposed changes ranging from reduced parking requirements to creating objective design review criteria. That meeting will be solely dedicated to considering amendments to the city’s zoning and tree ordinances — on which the commission has 30 days to make recommendations that will be forwarded to the City Council.
At issue is the city’s current zoning regulations and whether they create too much of a burden on homeowners seeking to renovate their property or keep Belmont from overdevelopment of individual lots.
Compared to other cities in the county, Belmont has the lowest threshold to trigger a single-family design review as the Planning Commission considers any addition of 400 square feet or more, has the most stringent parking requirement and has the least objective review criteria, said Senior Planner Damon DiDonato.
The city also caps most home sizes at 3,500 square feet, regardless of lot size.
Vice Mayor Eric Reed and Councilman Charles Stone collaborated with staff to make a list of amendments to the Belmont Zoning and Tree ordinances, which they say will help growing families by easing the city’s onerous building process.
The proposed amendments have elicited a range of opinions with some testifying about their struggles to expand their outdated 1950s home to account for children while others worry the changes would propagate McMansions in the quaint suburban community.
After more than 20 residents, real estate professionals and homeowners spoke in favor and opposition; the Planning Commission opted to focus on its support of creating a clear-cut tiered review system that ranges from simple additions being reviewed by staff to larger projects making their way to public hearings.
“From the time I moved to the city and my time on the commission, I’ve heard uniformly that the threshold for commission review forces too many homeowners to spend time and money having the commission review 450-square-foot additions that are pretty modest,” commission Chair Doug Kim said. “Of all the reforms that are being proposed, this is the one I think addresses a real need out there.”
Under the three-tiered system, the Planning Commission would review plans for new homes, any project that disturbs more than 6,000 square feet of a site, upper floor additions of 500 square feet or more, a combination of upper and lower floor additions of 1,000 square feet or more and other plans requiring special entitlements.
Smaller projects, such as a ground floor addition less than 500 square feet would be reviewed by Community Development Department staff while a second-story addition less than 500 square feet would be reviewed by a zoning administrator — currently the department’s director Carlos de Melo.
“We will spend more time on being planners versus the design review board. And I think that’s our main job and I’d like to get to that and I think the tier review will help us do that,” said commission Vice Chair Davina Hurt.
About 37 other changes include doing away with the city’s current home size cap and instead relying on a ratio to lot size, reducing the city’s parking requirements from four spaces to between two and three depending on the project’s size and continuing to allow up to a 1,200-square-foot detached addition but increasing the possibly of it being no more than 50 percent of the main home’s size.
With divided opinions among the community, some members of the public urged city officials to take their time and consider incremental updates.
Resident Daniel Pierce said he fears the community at large doesn’t understand the magnitude of what’s proposed as changing regulations will have an effect on the future of the city.
“I’m not opposed to a reasonable amount. The problem with these proposals is that we’re turning the knob up to 11,” Pierce said. “I don’t think anyone in this room is able to correctly anticipate all of the consequences that come from those changes.”
Former planning commissioners Kristin Mercer and Karin Hold spoke against the proposed regulations arguing they conflict with Belmont’s General Plan and urged city officials to proceed cautiously.
Hold said the potential changes would have a significant effect on the environment and recommended the commission not approve staff’s draft negative declaration, which claims the amendments would not create environmental impacts.
As some members of the public hurled accusations that staff and city councilmembers were not considering their best interests, many others expressed appreciation and confidence.
De Melo said the amendments will likely evolve as they continue to be reviewed by the Planning Commission, public and City Council. He urged the community stay involved and informed.
Should the amendments ultimately be approved by the City Council and the tier review system put in place, staff would be responsible for approving projects currently under the Planning Commission’s scope — a concept the commissioners unanimously supported.
“This would allow people to put their projects through a process that isn’t so daunting and costly,” said Planning Commissioner Amy Goldfarb. “I believe that staff is working for us. I believe they have our best interest at heart. I think that … they are working to improve Belmont.”
For more information about the proposed amendments to the Belmont Zoning and Tree ordinances visit http://belmont.gov/city-hall/community-development/planning-and-zoning/zoning-text-amendments.
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