With a view to reviewing and possibly updating our laws and regulations, City staff and Council members invited representatives of Rye’s four land-use boards to a roundtable, actually a square-table discussion at City Hall.
By Robin Jovanovich
With a view to reviewing and possibly updating our laws and regulations, City staff and Council members invited representatives of Rye’s four land-use boards to a roundtable, actually a square-table discussion at City Hall. On February 27, Mayor Doug French welcomed members of the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Board of Architectural Review, and the Conservation Commission/Advisory Council, and a wide-ranging discussion ensued.
“This forum, which I expect will be the first of many, came about as a result of a conversation I had with Planning Chair Nick Everett close to a year ago,” said Mayor French. “I asked him if he thought any of Rye’s land-use regulations needed changing.”
Before inviting representatives from the boards to speak, City Planner Christian Miller explained a little about the important responsibility they have.
“Land-use decisions are permanent, and the most important decisions a municipal government makes,” said Miller. “I don’t think a lot of people in the community understand how hard land-use boards work and in an environment that is very legalistic.
“Every decision has a context — there are a number of competing interests and you are trying to rework a community for current and future needs. There is never a perfect solution,” he said.
The representatives of each board were asked to explain their roles, the kinds of applications they are seeing and the challenges and opportunities those applications present.
The Planning Commission reviewed 53 applications last year, according to Everett. At least 50 percent of them were for wetland permits. Requests for sub-divisions were the next biggest category.
“The biggest issue for our board is that many residents who come before us do not fully understand all the laws and legal issues,” Everett explained.
Tony Piscionere, a longtime member of the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), said two sets of applications that come before them for variances which are of concern are front yard fencing and parking. The City Code allows a front yard fence to be up to four feet in height and one parking space in a front yard.
“The last thing we want to see is Rye as a walled-in community,” stressed Piscionere. “We were surprised when the Council granted relief after we had turned down a request by a Roger Sherman Place homeowner to allow a fence at the front corner of his property.”
Mayor French interjected, noting that relief was granted for unique circumstances that affected less than a handful of houses in Rye. The property is located right off the Boston Post Road and Playland Parkway. The City Planner concurred with the decision.
William Fegan, a member of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), spoke next. “Among the worrisome trends we are seeing are requests for attic spaces large enough to be used for living spaces, new homes whose volumes are very large, and applicants are asking for 110 percent of the maximum floor area ratio.” He added, “We want people to be able to develop houses, but appropriately.”
Fegan asked the City to consider changing administrative practice, so that BAR can offer their early input on variance requests to ZBA. The City Planner noted that Planning refers all applications to BAR and Conservation. “I think coordination between the boards and advisory referral puts applicants on notice,” said Miller.
Another trend that BAR would like to stop is wood-burning outdoor fireplaces. The City Code didn’t anticipate them, noted Councilman Peter Jovanovich, and a number of communities across the country have banned them, added Councilwoman Julie Killian.
Longtime Planning Commission member Barbara Cummings said she’s heard from one local architect that a lot of the houses being built are not Code-compliant. “Other communities require architects to submit CAD (computer-aided design) plans, which are helpful to building department staff.”
Rye’s building violation fines are de minimus, noted Fegan. “A lot of architects are ‘shooting’ first because the fines are so low.”
One of Rye’s oldest boards is the Conservation Commission/Advisory Council, which under state law became a commission in the 1970s. Its newly appointed chair, Carolyn Cunningham, noted that they are advisory in all environmental matters in the City.
“Our major task is giving advice to the Planning Commission,” explained Cunningham. “We want to help Planning retain the wetlands we have. We provide education on conservation to the community.” She added, “Trees are a big concern. We lost far too many in recent storms.” The City was working hard on drafting a new tree ordinance until last summer, when storms started puling up trees and residents expressed resistance to limiting their right to remove trees that needed to be taken down. (The view of many in the community is that many trees have been needlessly removed by developers in recent years. But that’s a topic of discussion for another City forum.)
Mayor French concluded the discussion by saying, “I underscore Christian’s comments. Let’s keep the dialogue open.”
Editor’s note: The author is a member of the Board of Architectural Review.