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Town Meeting update: New zoning rules aim to slow demolitions

A map of the new T-5 (NH) zoning districts approved by Town Meeting last week. Photo courtesy of Town of Brookline.
June 5, 2023

Brookline Town Meeting wrapped up its second week on Thursday, signing off on the town’s $375,221,343 budget and voting on a number of policy proposals.

In addition to a heated debate on the creation of a Black and Brown Commission, the town’s legislative body took on issues related to zoning, green buildings, marijuana licenses and more.

T-5 zoning

Town Meeting approved a zoning change to two T-5 (two-family) zoning districts in North Brookline, which was designed to limit the number of demolitions in those neighborhoods.

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The new bylaw contained in Warrant Article 16 was a compromise solution to increasing requests by developers to demolish homes, according to Linda Olson Pehlke, an Advisory Committee member and supporter of the warrant article. Those districts have seen five demolition applications in the last year-and-a-half.

The change creates new requirements which proponents say will encourage developers to renovate instead of building new, larger homes.

“Rather than allow a full three stories, the form of the building is limited to two and a half stories, which mirrors most of the existing homes,” said Olson Pehlke of the new zoning requirements. “The attic floor can have livable space equal to 70% of the square footage of the floor below.”

The zoning changes also limit building depth and the types of roofs that can be built in those districts.

Since the zoning change was proposed, three projects in the development queue in those districts have already moved away from their demolition proposals and moved toward retaining the existing buildings, according to Olson Pehlke.

Several Town Meeting members called it a “stopgap measure” which will likely be revisited as the town continues its work on a broader effort to reform planning and zoning in Brookline.

The article passed with 214 yes votes, 20 no votes and 5 abstentions.

Fossil fuel-free building pilot

Town Meeting also passed Warrant Article 15, which confirms Brookline’s eligibility to be part of a state pilot program allowing 10 communities to ban fossil fuels from new construction and major renovations.

Brookline is the sixth out of the 10 communities to pass legislation required to join the program which is set to start in the first half of 2024.

The warrant article was modified to give developers the right to appeal to the town’s building commissioner for permission to use fossil fuels in their projects, and it also tweaks the rules to allow existing combustion equipment, like a gas boiler or stove to remain during major renovations, but they cannot be replaced with new gas-powered equipment.

Town leaders have been pushing to ban fossil fuels in new buildings since 2019 and State Representative Tommy Vitolo says Brookline was one of the driving forces behind the state law.

Marijuana licenses

Town Meeting voted to refer a proposal to add a new marijuana storefront retailer license to the Select Board.

The proposal from Town Meeting member Donelle O’Neal would specifically create a license for “equity applicants,” a category which the Select Board is still working to define.

Town Meeting members decided to send that issue to the Select Board to consider, citing the fact that townwide voters overwhelmingly voted yes on Question 3 in the May election, which caps the number of retail marijuana licenses in town at its existing number, four.

Union contracts

Town Meeting also signed off on funding contracts for three town employee unions, representing police officers, firefighters and school traffic supervisors.

Notably, Town Meeting voted to fully fund the police union’s contract, despite a commitment from the town to challenge part of an arbitrator’s ruling giving the police union an extra pay raise for new state certification requirements.

The police contract, which expires at the end of June and covers the last three years, gives retroactive cost-of-living raises of 8.5%, plus an additional 4% for POST certification.

The fire department contract adds 3% per year to firefighters’ base salaries for fiscal years 2021, 2022 and 2023, as well as additional pay for active shooter training.

The contract with the school traffic supervisors’ union gives workers a total of 7% raises for those same years.