Neighbors are well aware of the Large House Review for 20 Tappan Rd., which has been the focus of two colorful Planning Board meetings this spring (April 20 and May 16) as well as a series of town board, committee, and commission meetings. Whether many others who frequent the Brook Path know about this project is less clear.
A continuation of the Planning Board’s Large House Review is slated for June 6, so that will give those of you who might not have been in the loop a chance to catch up and weigh in if so inclined. Materials related to the Large House Review have been collected by the Planning Board on the town website.
The Planning Board and planning director, acknowledging the greater-than-usual neighbor response, have emphasized and re-emphasized what the Large House Review process is all about during the meetings in order to focus discussion. “The purpose of Large House Review is to minimize the impacts of large houses on their surroundings by addressing aspects of the projects related to the 6 Large House Review Standards and Criteria: Preservation of Landscape, Scale of Buildings, Lighting, Open Space, Drainage, and Circulation,” according to the town website.
We reached out to the planning director for any information on how the amount of public feedback on this project compares to that of past projects, and will update this post if we hear back. The town’s website page on past Large House Reviews showed an error message when we tried to review it.
Some three hours of discussion at Planning Board meetings to date including this Large House Review have been alternately uncomfortable and compelling to watch (I’ve gone through both twice). Heartfelt comments, as well as accusations, apologies, and marketing have all been part of the mix. Planning Board Chair Jim Roberti found the need to “bring the temperature down a little bit” toward the end of the April 20 meeting after voices were raised.
Neighbors are heard
Neighbors say they are fond of the longtime resident looking to raze her home of 44 years and replace it with one that will accommodate herself as well as her son, his wife, and their five children. These neighbors don’t deny the proposed design for the new home is attractive, and they’ve praised the family for meeting with them since last summer and listening to their concerns. But those neighbors who have spoken during Planning Board meetings say the proposed home is too big for the location and given its proximity to the Brook Path (the applicant’s attorney, David Himmelberger, pointed out that not all neighbors oppose the plans). Direct abutter Mike Mahlenkamp prefaced his remarks at the April 20 Planning Board meeting by saying, “This has been difficult for me to write the letter that I wrote…” He concluded that the proposed house design would “irreversibly change the neighborhood, it would change the Brook Path.”
He and others sent another letter dated May 20 to the planning director acknowledging the willingness of the Slawsby family that owns 20 Tappan Rd., to scale down their project to the point where most Planning Board members will likely approve it. But these neighbors stressed that they’re looking for “significant” changes that will adhere to the Large House Review threshold of 3,600 sq. ft. for single residence districts.
They forwarded the letter, signed by more than 100 residents, to the Natural Resources Commission director, as the NRC oversees Fuller Brook Park. The NRC has not yet discussed this project, nor the broader question about larger homes close to the park, according to NRC Director Brandon Schmitt.
(Disclosure: I’m an appointed member of the Wellesley Trails Committee, which falls under the NRC.)
During the May 16 meeting, a neighbor who lives directly across the Brook Path from the home under discussion aired concerns about what he termed the “disproportionate” mass and scale of the proposed project. Alexander Murphy questioned the relevance of changes that have been made by the design team to date, stating that “the final measure is the ultimate output” that neighbors and the public will see. Murphy also raised the issue of what sort of precedent such a home could set for future projects along the path. “This will form the basis…for future economic opportunities sought by developers and investors who may seek to change fundamentally the nature of the neighborhood,” he said.
The team that would build the house has touted changes they have made along the approval process based on town and neighborhood input. They’ve emphasized the “multigenerational” angle of the home, hoping to appeal to the sort of public sentiment that recently resulted in Town Meeting support for allowing accessory dwelling units in town to accommodate so-called in-law apartments. Owner Lauri Slawsby said during the May 16 meeting that her “most fervent wish” is to live out her life at that location, noting that her family dedicated a bench on the path to commemorate her late husband’s spirit and appreciation for the area.
Planning Board member Marc Charney complimented the applicant’s team for a design that would fit all family members without resorting to huge bedrooms. While this project isn’t exactly an accessory dwelling unit situation, Charney said during the April 20 Planning Board meeting that it “incorporates the spirit of what we were trying to do with the accessory dwelling unit bylaw change….because the goal of the bylaw was to try to encourage folks to stay in their houses.” Charney raised questions related to the massing and scaling of the project at the next Planning Board meeting.
The “modern take on a stick-style Victorian,” as described by the applicant’s team, boasts 4,700 sq. ft. of TLAG (total living area plus garage space) vs. the 2,200 sq. ft. of the current 1.5-story cottage-style home. The 2.5-story house would cover about a quarter of the roughly 10,500 sq. ft. lot, which is complex in that it faces both Tappan and Benton Roads at the end of two dead-end streets, as well as the Brook Path.
The team behind the proposed home says it has kept the center of the building toward the center of the lot, and made changes to the design (more windows, less wall) based on town and resident feedback that has resulted in less real and perceived mass. The design team has frequently referred to the modest, or “modest by modern standards” size of the proposed home’s features.
The team outlined stormwater management plans and landscaping design with new native plantings to minimize impact. “We’ve also gone through considerable effort to reinforce the wetlands habitat on the Fuller Brook Path, which is currently grass leading down to a compacted gravel path,” said Architect Jonathan Chace. “A substantial portion of our site is dedicated to replanting that with native wetland species and minimizing the lawn. So in effect, we have reinforced the wetlands buffer along the path to a much greater degree than what currently exists.” Chace showed images to give a sense of what those on the Brook Path would see, suggesting a combination of trees and plantings would diminish the size the of structure from their viewpoint.
Neighbors and the team behind the proposed home have different interpretations of whether the home would fit in with surrounding homes based on its size, including a height of more than 34 feet at its peak, and footprint. They’ve also offered different measures for how far the home will be from the middle or edge of the Brook Path (from 30 to 35 feet).
Architect Chace summed up his presentation during the May 16 Planning Board meeting by stating: “We would suggest that this house is quite in keeping in scale and style to the neighborhood, and will be a welcome reinforcement and enrichment to the Fuller Brook Path.”
This echoed Attorney Himmelberger ‘s assertion that “We don’t believe that this is out of scale to the area, including the Brook Path.”
Not all on the Planning Board agreed.
“I think we’re going to have a situation where despite the efforts to mitigate this issue with design, you’re going to have a very large, very tall, very bulky house kind of looming over the Fuller Brook Path,” said Planning Board member Kathleen Woodward, referring to Fuller Brook as “probably the most heavily used public park in town.” Patricia Mallett termed the proposed house “pretty,” but said “I think the mass and scale of the house is overpowering for the site.” Roberti added that the proposed new house would be “a game changer, something new for that area.”
To that point, resident Peter Solomon said toward the end of the May 16 meeting that while notifications about the project have been sent to abutters, that “the notices that go out don’t go out to everyone that uses the Brook Path. It’s not hundreds, it’s thousands of people, and I think that it’s really important to recognize that if you think about the number of meetings there are in this town and the notification process and how everyone’s so busy, I just would hate to have a situation where if [the design goes through] and people were walking by and saying ‘Oh my gosh, how did this even come to be?'”
The town website states that Large House Review is generally a 3-4 month-long process from the date of submission to the receipt of a building permit, and that the Planning Board will typically issue a decision at the second meeting if all issues have been resolved. We’re already headed toward the third meeting, and talk at the end of the second was that this will be an iterative process in which the design team will present updates at the next meeting and things will go from there.
Roberti’s stated view is that the Planning Board’s role is to shape projects so that they will be better for neighbors and homeowners. “I want to see a win-win, not a win-lose kind of situation for these projects,” he said.