The item on Monday night’s Zoning Board of Appeals agenda for 39 Murphy Lane read: “area variance modification for proposed changes to a previously approved barn conversion to single-family residence; seeking additional relief from the minimum front yard and rear yard requirements in the Urban Residential-3 District.”
I will provide a link to the video when it is available but here are my impressions from the evening.
First of all the Board met with two members, Skip Carlson and Adam McNeil, being replaced by alternates. Having alternates to fill in when Board members cannot be present seems like a good idea but raises a lot of questions I’m not sure have been thought through. For instance, two alternates sat through and participated in the discussion of the Murphy Lane variances but there was no vote last night. Will the alternates be brought back for the vote on March 7 or will the regular board members who have now missed the discussion be voting? Would the vote come out differently if the alternates not the regular Board members were voting? Some of the same questions could be asked of all the items on last night’s ZBA agenda .
The review of Murphy Lane began with the applicant’s attorney trying to explain why the barn renovation they had brought before the Board had turned into a new construction single family house. She claimed that the applicant’s final purchase of the property was contingent on the renovation plans being approved by the ZBA. Since the applicant didn’t actually own the property she didn’t inspect the sills, walls, etc. and allegedly had no idea of the actual state of the barn. Now the applicant is a real estate agent. It is hard for me to believe that she would make a purchase offer on a structure if she were unaware of its condition. Anyway, her lawyer contended that once she started work on the structure it was all of a sudden discovered that there was significant deterioration and then one thing lead to another and sadly her intention to save the building gave way to replacing it with new construction. The good news, the attorney said ,was that they could eliminate one of the variances already granted and could reduce the others mainly it seemed by reducing the overhang of the roof.
Keith Kaplan noted that serious changes had been made and that a full basement that had been put in was not in the original plans presented to the Board and had raised the whole structure two feet. He noted that the applicant and her lawyer were not ignorant applicants who were unaware of building requirements and procedures. Why, he asked them, when they decided to change the plans and put in a full basement didn’t they come back to the Board for approval.
The applicant first said she did it because she could get more storage space out of a basement. Then, when pressed, she said she had read the plans wrong and didn’t know she had to come back to the Board. She just wanted to put in a basement she said.
Kaplan noted that the plans as submitted had not transpired and that made it difficult to balance the neighbor’s needs with the needs of the applicant.
Susan Steer made a strong statement criticizing the applicant. She said she was appalled by what had happened to the structure. She had voted against the original variances and had no intention of approving the applicant’s new request. She wondered how far the whole project would have gone had the neighbors not been vigilant.
Gary Hasbrouck asked what degree of change in plans triggers a stop work order.
Steve Shaw, the city building inspector, noted he had received complaints from neighbors that the project was not going forward as presented. Shaw noted that changes are not unusual as a project proceeds. For instance if a stone foundation is being worked on and crumbles and requires an alternate plan that is not a big deal, but the building department should be consulted first. In the case of 39 Murphy Lane he said the changes increased significantly the amount of non compliance. Hasbrouck, the developers’ best friend on the Board, continued to question whether raising the foundation two feet affected the criteria they were supposed to use in granting variances and seemed to minimize the changes that had occurred in the plans for Murphy Lane.
James Helicke got straight to the point. “How is this a renovation?” he asked. “What percentage of this structure is part of the original barn? I see all new.”
William Moore admitted that when he voted for the variances he didn’t picture what is there now and would not have approved what it has turned into.
Helicke pointed out that the applicant herself had stated in her application that “Tearing down the barn and starting new would cause a detriment to the neighborhood and community character” and that this was obviously a self-created problem.
Sheri Grey, one of the alternates, commented that the barn should still be in existence to call it a renovation and that she felt this was not a re-use of existing space.
Moore asked Shaw what would happen if the new variances were not approved. Shaw replied that the project could not proceed and that the applicant would have to come back with another plan.
Kaplan asked for additional information to clarify the change in height. Shaw pointed out that a significant amount of fill had been brought into the site so it was not flat anymore and this would affect an attempt to measure the original height of the building versus what was being proposed. Other Board members asked for a comparison of the height of the project to surrounding structures.
At 7:55 the neighbors had their chance to speak. Mr. Moore did not limit speakers to two minutes this time. The neighbors were articulate and focused in their remarks. Many came armed with photos showing the original barn and the new structure for the Board to compare. The new owners of 74 White Street noted that they had decided to buy their property based on the assurance that the barn renovation would create a “cute little cottage” as William Moore had described it and felt they had been subjected to a bait and switch. They noted that the plans were constantly changing so it was hard to make an informed decision. They noted a number of indignities they had gone through including construction workers urinating in their yard, construction debris being dumped in their yard, and vehicles using their yard as a turn around. When they brought all this to the attention of the applicant she merely told them to call the builder. Other neighbors testified that the applicant had told different stories about who would inhabit the new structure. Some were told the applicant herself and her family would move in. Others were told someone who lived in Florida and just came up for the races would move in. Some neighbors were told there would be an apartment in the basement. One neighbor was told the applicant planned to just flip the house. Other neighbors pointed out that the new height and window placement meant that the structure would overlook their yards and invade their privacy. Others noted that if this applicant were allowed to get away with this project it would set a precedent for other applicants in the future to do what they want and as one neighbor put it come to the board to “ask forgiveness, not approval.” A number of neighbors argued that the previous variances had been granted for work on a barn that no longer existed and so those variances were now null and void. The applicant should start over and apply for new variances based on new construction of a single family house on the plot.
Once again I was proud to live in a neighborhood where neighbors turned out to support each other and where so many spoke with clarity and argued so persuasively. But all this is to be continued. No vote was taken on the project. The Board requested more information from the applicant. Possibly new players will be at the table next time if Carlson and McNeil, both of whom had approved the previous variances, are present. Stay tuned—the project at 39 Murphy Lane will be back before the ZBA on March 7.