Saturday, May 13, 2006

In The Zone

When a story appeared in the Herald News reporting that the City Council had questions and concerns regarding our Zoning board, I was intrigued.

Apparently Fall River's zoning board grants far more variance requests that any other community in the state and the City Council and the council had questions as to why.

Well looking around the city this seemed to make sense to me. Houses and housing developments have popped up all over the place. The combination of the rising cost of real estate coupled with the relatively low cost for housing in Fall River (as compared to other areas in the state), fueled a building boom in the city. An old, established city like Fall River does not have a ton of free space for development and houses popped up on small vacant plots and subdivided lots and commercial properties were bought with the sole intent of demolishing whatever was on them to make may for more houses.

A good example, and one that seems to have prompted the actions of the council and has made all of this 'newsworthy' is the zoning board granting a variance for a 15 story, 96 unit complex to be situated near the Marina. Neighbors immediately cried that was ridiculous that the proposed complex was too close to their homes, the area is congested and it would block out the water-views that the community has always enjoyed. Others, like the Herald's Marc Monroe Dion feel, 'hey this is good!' because new houses means growth and prosperity and homeowners who actually live in their homes are preferable to absentee landlords and that is more important than water-views or the inconvenience of those who are crying NOT IN MY BACKYARD!! The Zoning Board of Appeals says granting the variance was the right thing to do because there is nothing in the city's zoning to prohibit the high-rise. The Mayor believes that the board is doing a good job but that a big issue is that the foundation for Fall River's existing zoning ordinances date back about 80 years and need an overhaul.

So what where does the problem lie? Is the issue really that the ordinances are problematic and out of date, or do we have a board that is too liberal in granting variances? If the board can deny a variance for 96 unit complex on a tiny parcel of land shouldn't they? Should variances be granted to shoehorn houses on tiny lots where you can practically touch your neighbors house from within your own? Are we all that allergic to grass that we need to develop every square inch of land?

Look, I understand that Fall River is a city and that tight congested neighborhoods have existed for generations but that doesn't mean we should still do it that way today. The city has changed. Neighborhoods were self-supportive with stores and markets, and barber shops. Streets weren't congested with cars because cars didn't exist and most people walked to work at a nearby mill.

Instead of trying to squeeze a profit, uh, I mean a house on every little piece of land shouldn't we be trying instead to build houses that are worth living in? My own house lot is a little more that 4,000 square feet and although not large there is enough land to have cook outs and for kids to play, still room enough for a swing set OR a pool but that's only because back when the house was built there was no frontage requirements and the house sits practically on top of the street. The same house built today would have to be 15 ft. in from the road and have so much room behind it and the result would be no usable yard. In fact I know where one recently built house has the entire surrounding yard cemented over!! I guess they figured if it's not usable why mow grass?

My own opinion is that house lots should be a minimum of 12,000 square feet and that the size and footprint of the house be small enough to allow for a at least a small, usable yard. A bigger house would require a bigger lot and anybody wanting to build on an 'undersized' lot would need to apply for a variance. As far as the proposed Marina condominiums, I think the variance should have been denied. The area is too congested and the lot too small. Variances should not be granted unless the resulting impact (traffic, demand on schools, water, sewer and yes the effect on the quality of life of the people already living there) is fully taken into consideration.

Really, this is just good city planning and it's something that Fall River has woefully lacked in the past and something we shouldn't be ignoring now. After all what's the point of new houses and new developments if it ruins the quality of life for the people in the old ones?

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