As the Chilmark planning board continues to grapple with the question of how to regulate very large houses, the board looked to the town of Wellfleet this week as a possible model.
At the planning board meeting Tuesday, a former member of the Wellfleet planning board gave strong words of encouragement to his counterparts in Chilmark.
Griswold Draz discussed a 2008 bylaw passed by voters in Wellfleet that limits the size of houses in the Cape Cod National Seashore district to 2,800 square feet, with maximum lot coverage of 3,600 square feet including accessory structures.
“Wellfleet keeps coming up in our discussion,” Chilmark planning board chairman Janet Weidner said, introducing Mr. Draz. “The question that always keeps coming up, is it legal to limit the size of a house absolutely? Some of us are of the opinion that you can’t do that. The biggest question is how did you do it? We’re here to pick your brain. We’re looking to hear any insights you might have.”
A subcommittee of the planning board has been meeting for the past nine months to develop a bylaw to regulate the size of large houses. The latest draft calls for houses over 3,500 square feet to go through an extra layer of review among town land use boards.
Mr. Draz said the Wellfleet bylaw that caps house size is legal.
“It’s unquestionably allowed and legal, I don’t believe any person is stupid enough to challenge that given numerous court cases . . . that clearly articulate the legality and acceptance that towns have this power to regulate, limit and, indeed if they want to say, to this size and no more, period,” he said. “End of discussion.”
The Wellfleet zoning bylaw limits primary residences in the national seashore district to 2,800 square feet of gross floor area. Maximum site coverage allowed (including accessory buildings) on a lot three acres or more is 3,600 square feet. The bylaw allows no exceptions. The 2,800 square feet is measured to include the exterior dimensions of the first and second story of a home, and does not include the basement.
Chilmark planning board members wondered whether the bylaw draws extra legal strength from the fact that it applies to homes in the Cape Cod National Seashore, but Mr. Draz downplayed that factor. He said the state attorney general approved the Wellfleet bylaw on the strength of a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision involving the Brookline zoning board of appeals, which upheld the rights of towns and cities to use floor area ratios to regulate single-family homes.
Mr. Draz said longstanding residential zoning bylaws in Wellfleet require a minimum three-quarter-acre lot with maximum five per cent coverage, and within the seashore a minimum three-acre lot with maximum 15 per cent coverage.
“If you have a three-acre minimum lot size, you’re essentially restricted to absolute limitation on the main dwelling of 2,800 square feet of living space,” he said. “Above and beyond that, if you have a large enough lot size you can have another 800 square feet for an accessory structure. But the total cap, no matter the size of the lot, you can have only 3,600 square feet of combined accessory structures and primary dwelling.”
Mrs. Weidner said the planning board is leaning toward the use of a sliding scale for site coverage. Chilmark has three-acre minimum zoning, except in Menemsha which has 1.5-acre minimum zoning.
“We’ve been grappling with, if we did something like that to try and make it as [uncomplicated] as possible,” Mrs. Weidner said.
Mr. Draz said the Wellfleet bylaw limiting house size was developed after a 6,500-square-foot house went up in a “prominent and visible location” within the seashore district.
“It created a real sense of, how is this happening? We thought the park district was protected . . . and that’s when the town became aware it wasn’t protected . . .” he said
As in Chilmark, discussion in Wellfleet focused on the threat to the character of the town from houses out of scale with the surrounding landscape, built and unbuilt.
“The density of housing in older neighborhoods is very close to developed,” Mr. Draz said. “If someone comes in and buys a pre-existing home and builds up to the maximum, that automatically changes dramatically the character of the neighborhood of what people begin to feel about the town as a whole.”
Most of the older homes in Wellfleet average about 2,000 square feet, Mr. Draz said, so the planning board used that number as a guide in their decision-making.
He said town support for the bylaw was “astonishing.” He said there was healthy debate on the town meeting floor when the bylaw came before voters in October 2008, but in the end the dissenting votes were “negligible when it came down to the actual vote.”
“It had to do partly with the reaction to this particular house and that it was the Cape Cod National Seashore, but it was also a sensibility of the character of the town as a whole that people were concerned about and wanted to see something done that would address this,” he said.
“We said we don’t want to see this happen again, and if that’s what Chilmark is doing — reacting to or wanting to preserve and protect — that’s what you’re trying to get at and not at what it looks like,” he continued. “Look at how it undermines the sensibility of yourself as a community who looks upon each other as neighbors.”