No legal basis for Greylock variances

Posted 2/29/24

Looked at side by side, it is difficult to discern any difference between the revised and original plans.

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No legal basis for Greylock variances


On the evening of Feb. 19, more than 200 man-hours were expended by the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Land Use, Planning and Zoning (LUPZ) and Design Review Committees (DRC) discussing mostly unimportant details of a development proposal for the Greylock estate that can be neither legally constructed nor ethically justified. 

Just 55 minutes before the meeting, the developer made available a nominally “new” proposal. More than 100 days had passed since the meeting on Nov. 2 when LUPZ requested changes to the original plan. Looked at side by side, it is difficult to discern any difference between the revised and original plans. The accompanying traffic impact “analysis” somehow concludes that doubling the number of residences on the block will result in a mere 1% increase in traffic.

From the perspective of impact on the land, traffic, construction disruption, requirements for zoning variances, and disregard for key provisions of the Greylock’s easements, the “new” proposal is essentially the same as the “old” proposal. All those who opposed the latter have the same reasons to oppose the former. The looming presence of an additional story atop the mansion comprises the biggest change and further violates the spirit of the easements. 

At the beginning of the meeting, the chair stated that those present would, as with the previous meeting, only discuss the proposal in the context of applied-for zoning variances, not within the context of legally prevailing easements that limit development of the property. 

Yet, the committee did not discuss zoning matters much either. No one other than the Chestnut Hill Landmark Committee’s lawyer David Fineman even mentioned the salient legal issue, “hardship on the land,” upon which the requested variances hinge. Because there are no such hardships, it is abundantly clear that within this legally prevailing element of the code, there is no reason to grant the requested variances.

LUPZ has received petitions and letters representing more than 100 community members and organizations who oppose the current plan for Greylock. These were barely acknowledged by the committee. Not a single letter or other document representing an individual or organization in support of the plan was referenced. 

Absent discussion of salient legal issues or community opposition to the totality of the plan, the meeting instead constituted a haphazard design charrette. The committees, whose membership disproportionately represents architects and others in the development business, focused discussion on such lesser matters as the amount of stone facing used on the new buildings, whether the proposed one-story addition to the mansion was aesthetically appropriate and from what distance it might be viewed, and egress and ingress of parking garages. 

Any discussion of the entirety of the project was framed in terms of “viability” – which is a euphemism for profit. 

The developer contends that the mansion cannot be restored unless residential buildings are added to the property. Committee members willingly accepted and supported that contention, deferentially asking questions on the order of  “Do you think it might be ‘viable’ with only 12 or 14 residences rather than 15?”

All investment involves the risk of loss, including investment in real estate. Whether the developer makes money on the property is not a concern for these committees, the CHCA, the Conservancy, the ZBA or the Orphan’s Court. 

Discussion of profitability, like discussion of stone facing, or whether a ten-foot high addition atop of the mansion is merely inappropriate, or grotesque, is an expensive indulgence that accomplishes nothing in service of making an intelligent decision about the current proposal, let alone finding a “solution” to Greylock.

The region is replete with examples of large estates that have been meticulously restored and are maintained at great expense by their owners – without assurance of financial gain. The people who live in and restore these buildings reap the satisfaction and comfort of living in beautiful places and in preserving them for subsequent generations. 

The idea that Greylock must be exploited for maximum profit reflects the myopia of the development professionals who dominate the LUPZ and DRC. It is not reflective of the legal or social reality that respectively governs and motivates the conservation of historic estates.

Is it impossible to imagine that someone would purchase, restore, and live in Greylock for the intangible benefits of doing so? Is it impossible to imagine members of the community coming together to fund the renovation of the property for use by an existing institution? I would not suggest as much to the people who are dedicated to the restoration of Lynwood Hall, or, closer to home, the conversion of Maguire Hall for the Woodmere, whose market value purchase was funded by local philanthropy. 

It is disappointing that the relevant committees of so-called “community organizations” that purport to be concerned about all matters affecting land use can neither manage to discuss the legal limitations that regulate the land under discussion, nor the community impacts of the development scheme being deliberated. 

The good news for the community is that the deliberations herein discussed are likely irrelevant. Whether the current proposal for Greylock can be made manifest will probably be decided by city agencies and courts of law. 

David Dannenberg

Chestnut Hill