House building different sizes
Courtesy of Envato Elements

This Town Meeting season, the Planning Board is recommending a few different zoning changes that members hope will address the community’s shortage of diverse housing options. The board has proposed multi-family zoning to satisfy new state requirements and voted to support an article intended to improve incentives for developers to create multiple housing types and additional affordable housing.

Separate from those articles, Town Meeting Member Matt Daggett (P2) put forward an article to limit the maximum permitted gross floor area of houses in Lexington. This article, he said, aims to address the trend of ever-larger houses replacing smaller ones after teardowns. This pattern has repeatedly been identified as a resident concern – including in the recent townwide survey and Comprehensive Plan – because it erodes the community’s smaller, more affordable housing stock and the Town’s green space.

“This isn’t some attempt to preclude development,” Daggett said at the Planning Board’s March 1 public hearing. “It’s really a modest reduction that’s responding to two comprehensive plans and 30 years of feedback from the community about overly large new construction in Lexington.” In an email to LexObserver, he wrote that the proposal would reduce “the allowable size of new home construction by 5% on very small lots to 23% on large ones.”

While the Planning Board’s other housing-focused articles provide alternatives to conventional single-family development, Daggett explained at last week’s public hearing that his proposal takes a different tack. He hopes it would moderately regulate single-family home size with the goal of providing something in between the large single-family homes that dominate Lexington and the denser development the Planning Board is seeking to incentivize. “We’re seeing that erosion in the middle,” Daggett said. “One of the things that this article does is it shifts that back down so that we are continuing to grow smaller single-family housing as part of our overall strategy.”

Town Meeting first adopted limits on the size of homes in Lexington in 2016 in response to another article proposed by the Planning Board. This year, Daggett presented Article 40 as an update to those regulations. “As someone who helped design the original bylaw, I knew the initial limits were likely too permissive and would not ameliorate the issue,” he wrote.

Daggett said his proposal would only limit the allowable gross floor area for new structures, and would keep the 2016 limits in place for existing structures, “which encourages the rehabilitation and expansion of existing homes,” he wrote. He proposed the article would take effect in 2024 to allow some phase-in time.

At its March 1 meeting, the Planning Board unanimously voted to recommend that Town Meeting refer Daggett’s article to the Planning Board instead of approving the article. In its report explaining the decision, members wrote “the Planning Board and Town staff have not had sufficient time to consider the interaction of the proposed change with other provisions in the Zoning Bylaw or to understand the effect on the housing market in Lexington.” The Special Permit Residential Development Ad Hoc Committee also recommended against approving the article at this Town Meeting.

Charles Hornig, a member of both committees, said on March 1 that the language of the bylaw was unclear and left too much room for uncertainty in edge cases, especially related to renovations and partial reconstructions. “This needs a little more time to bake,” he said. “It also should be considered more carefully in conjunction with the Planning Board’s other housing initiatives.” 

The Planning Board will focus on “what our housing policy should be for the bulk of the lots in town” once the MBTA multi-family zoning and SPRD work are completed, Hornig added. “This would absolutely be a good candidate for consideration as part of that effort, but it is not something that there’s a critical need to move forward this year, especially since as proposed it wouldn’t take effect until next year anyway.”

During opportunities for public comment, a few builders voiced concerns similar to Hornig’s, saying the article lacked specificity about what would be considered an addition versus a demolition. Daggett said that the building commissioner and Town staff would be able to determine the line between reconstruction and renovation, and noted that he had reviewed the language carefully with multiple members of Town staff.

A couple of builders also claimed that the article could undermine the nest eggs of some Lexingtonians who sold their homes to builders. “This proposal, while targeted at developers, will cause significant collateral damage to many long-term Lexingtonians,” said developer Ben Finnegan, arguing that the proposal would mean developers would pay less for tear-downs or sell at an increased cost per square foot.

Richard Perry, an SPRD committee member and builder in town, added that the pandemic had contributed to a demand for larger homes, especially with the proliferation of remote work.

But some community members, including Town Meeting Member Ricki Pappo (P2), voiced support for the proposal. “One of the things we’ve been hearing from the community over and over in different forums is the houses are too big,” she said. The bylaw could also have a benefit from a sustainability perspective, she added, by reducing teardowns.

Richard Canale, the former chair of the Planning Board, also supported the article. “I think the Planning Board, if we went on merit, probably would have proposed something to Town Meeting very similar to what Mr. Daggett is proposing now,” he said.

At the March 1 meeting, Daggett expressed concern that referring back to the Planning Board could delay the article indefinitely. “Every time we kick this can, this is how we have not dealt with this for 30 years,” he said. “If you look at the history of the number of articles that we’ve referred to the board that we just never pick up again, [there’s] a long history there.”

In a follow-up email to LexObserver, Daggett added that he had begun to bring a similar article to Town Meeting in 2020, but that article had not been addressed by the Planning Board since being referred due to the pandemic at that time. “From a bylaw perspective, this update is very simple, and I was disappointed that the board recommended the article be referred back to them” at last week’s public hearing, he wrote. “I hope that Town Meeting will see that Article 40 is a measured and sensible improvement that addresses an issue that Lexingtonians have been seeking action on for decades.”

While voting to refer the article back to the Planning Board, multiple board members explicitly signaled their intention to take the article up as soon as possible.

“We will be sure to put this on our work plan so that we do take it up in the near future,” Chair Robert Peters said.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Matt Daggett was the proponent of a Town Meeting article in 2016 limiting the size of homes. In fact, that article was brought forward by the Planning Board, though Daggett worked on the article as a member of a Planning Board subcommittee. LexObserver regrets the error.

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  1. I support limiting the size of houses in Lexington, as proposed by Matt Daggett, for two reasons. First, bigger houses will use more energy, adding to greenhouse emissions. Second, such ungainly houses have been quite detrimental to the appearance of Liberty Heights, as well as other parts of Lexington.

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