Have you noticed the new house next door?

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on February 5, 2015.

Here’s a thought that many people are thinking but few are saying: residential development in Wellesley is out of control.

Since 2000, over 10% of the town’s housing stock has been torn down and replaced by new construction, the vast majority of which has been through a process known as ‘speculative building’ where a builder constructs a new house — almost always significantly larger than the structure it replaces — and tries to sell it quickly in order to make a financial gain.

Let’s be clear here. Some of this redevelopment is good. Either the houses torn down really are teardowns given their condition or the newly constructed homes are quite nice and fit well within their respective neighborhoods.

But that’s the exception, not the rule. Many of the houses that are torn down are in good (or occasionally great) condition. And some of those that aren’t can be improved and retrofitted in order to meet today’s living standards.

The bigger problem, however, is the new construction. Simply put, most ‘spec houses’ stand out like sore thumbs. They’re just way too big and little thought seems to have been given to design them to complement neighboring homes.

So why is this a problem? Well, let’s see. It destroys neighborhoods. It reduces the stock of relatively affordable housing. It worsens drainage problems. It increases traffic and stress to our infrastructure.

Furthermore, it’s environmentally devastating: replacing a house with a new one that is 30% more energy efficient still requires 10 to 80 years just to recoup the energy costs associated with the teardown-rebuild process.

But most importantly, speculative building acts to decrease the value of the surrounding older homes. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t increase the value of all properties within a neighborhood. Instead, it makes the older homes seem dinky and reduces their market value to the value of the land. After all, who wants to buy a dinky home?

Just look at sales prices of homes within Wellesley neighborhoods with and without speculative building over the last decade. In neighborhoods without much speculative building, older homes have appreciated more than 8% since 2005. However, in areas where speculative building has been rampant — like the Fells and the Woodlands — the older homes have experienced little (or even negative) appreciation during this same period. That difference amounts to upwards of $100,000 in lost value for each property.

So what can be done to stop this? Well, that remains to be seen. But perhaps we should begin by looking at an analogous situation that Wellesley went through over 90 years ago.

Way back, in the early 1920s, the town was at a crossroads. Although we had long since begun our transition from a farming community into an affluent suburb, the increasing popularity of the automobile turned Wellesley into a hotspot for families looking to relocate out of the city.

Up to that time, almost all the development in Wellesley was confined to the areas around our village centers. Now, with such a high demand for housing, the question became what would happen to the undeveloped parts of town. Should those areas be strictly residential? If so, what kind of housing should be built there? Single family homes? Duplexes? Triple-deckers? Apartment buildings?

There were also questions about where to locate the commercial and industrial districts. Or more precisely, the issue was how could the Town restrict unwelcome development. After all, Town leaders very much wanted Wellesley to be almost entirely residential in character with few factories or even businesses that didn’t directly serve the residents.

In order to address those questions, the Town began by establishing the Planning Board in 1922. According to Massachusetts General Law, this board “shall make careful studies of the resources, possibilities and needs of the Town, particularly with respect to conditions injurious to the public health or otherwise in and about rented dwellings, and make plans for the development of the municipality, with special reference to proper housing of its inhabitants.”

Immediately, the primary objective of the Planning Board was to establish a town-wide zoning ordinance that gave the Town some level of control over development. Amazingly, up to that time, there was no zoning whatsoever in Wellesley. In theory, you could build whatever you wanted wherever you wanted. The only controls were set through deed restrictions where grantors would specify certain conditions that had to be met by the new owners of the properties. (The vast majority of residential lots of land sold in Wellesley from the 1880s to the 1920s carried restrictions. Some were simple: “No fowl or cows shall be kept on the property.” Most, however, were complex with specific stipulations that guaranteed only single family dwellings costing at least a certain amount and set far back from the road would be constructed. This was especially true for lots in what are now some of Wellesley’s most desirable neighborhoods including the Belvedere and Cliff Estates.)

Zoning would eliminate much of the need for deed restrictions. As explained by one of the pioneers in that field, “The whole purpose of zoning is to encourage the erection of the right building in the right place. It protects the man who develops his property along proper lines against the man who develops his property along improper lines. Rightly understood, zoning means the substitution of an economic, scientific, efficient community program of city building for wasteful, inefficient, haphazard growth.”

The benefits of such control were summed up nicely by the Wellesley Townsman editor on the eve of the Town Meeting vote in 1925: “Up to this time, Wellesley has been fairly free from what we know as speculative building…However, Wellesley cannot hope to escape this type of promotion indefinitely. As land for quick development is getting more scarce in Newton and Brookline, the natural tendency will be to come further out and buy tracts in Wellesley…The Zoning Ordinance will, in no way, retard the healthy future growth of our town, but will control it along sane lines which will improve present values rather than cause them to decline, as would be the case had the town failed to protest its home builders by reasonable building regulations.”

Town Meeting voters were in complete agreement with that assessment. With relatively little debate, they voted overwhelmingly (534 to 36) to adopt the first zoning ordinance, which broke up the town into five separate districts — single residence, general residence, educational, business, and industrial — each of which had specific regulations and restrictions that governed development within it. And over the ensuing years, Wellesley would adopt a myriad of other zoning bylaws that gave more control to the Town and protected homeowners from undesirable development.

It’s now 2015 and Wellesley is at another crossroads. Our town is built out; there is little undeveloped land. We must therefore grow by redevelopment. So what should we do to mitigate the harmful effects of speculative building? Yes, the Town has recently improved its zoning bylaws with the implementation of Large House Review in 2007 and Cluster Zoning in 2013. But has it been enough? Is there something we can do now to bring back sane and intelligent development to Wellesley?

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