No easement? No problem. Condos rise in a backyard
Neighbors question city’s approval for seven-unit development
When Nashira Baril moved to Taylor Terrace just three years ago, she and her husband were drawn to the quiet dead-end row of single-family homes off of River Street in Mattapan.
A single-family and a duplex lay just beyond her back yard.
Then, in a scenario that’s playing out in neighborhoods throughout Boston, the single-family was torn down to make way for a seven-unit condo development.
“It came down in hours,” she said. “They dug a foundation the following day.”
Soon thereafter, another developer bought out the owners of the duplex with plans to demolish that building and put up a 13-unit condo complex.
Baril and her neighbors were concerned.
“They’re changing the face of the neighborhood,” she said. “There were three homes back there. Now we’re looking at 20 luxury units.”
Like many Bostonians facing fast-moving, multi-unit development projects abutting their homes, Baril and her neighbors began researching the projects at 52R and 54R River Street, making frequent calls to the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) and combing through deeds and zoning maps. What they found raised more questions than answers.
Baril’s neighborhood is zoned as a neighborhood shopping subdistrict, owing to the Star Market that was built nearby. Under that designation, greater housing density is allowed as well as greater building heights.
While ISD approved the seven-unit project as-of-right, meaning the condos at 52R could be built without an appearance before the Zoning Board of Appeal, residents note that the property lines include no street frontage, meaning that the property is essentially landlocked.
“They have no easement, no egress, no frontage,” says Susan Lombardi-Verticelli.
While the single-family home that was torn down was originally part of the same parcel as 54R — the duplex that developer Teddy Ahern plans to tear down to make way for a 14-unit building — the parcels were split, leaving 52R a virtual island.
“It’s landlocked,” said Gary Tondorf-Dick, an architect who lives in the neighborhood. “In order for a lot to be developed, it has to have frontage. If you have to drive over someone else’s land to get to the street, you don’t have frontage.”
The existing water, sewer and electricity lines that served the single-family home are not adequate for a seven-unit building.
The developer of 52R, Cronan Dempsey, claims the lot shares an easement 54R has that leads to River Street. But the city’s zoning map shows no easement connected to 52R.
“There’s no deed that states the lots are connected,” said Tondorf-Dick, who searched records filed at the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds.
Inspectional Services Director Dion Irish, who came on as head of the city department in June, backs Dempsey’s claim.
“52 and 54 share the same easement,” he said.
Irish took over the department after the departure of former director William “Buddy” Christopher, who is now on a leave of absence from the city.
Irish said he has had ISD officials review the case.
“All the experts who have looked at this over and over found it to be as-of-right,” he said.
Irish’s assertions seem to have done little to assuage the neighbors’ doubts.
“The question I keep asking is how did they get an as-of-right permit without access to utilities or egress,” Lombardi-Verticelli says.
While Dempsey is planning to bring in water and sewer lines using the easement for 54R, his four-story building received permits for construction without frontage on a street, which Tondorf-Dirk says would violate state law.
“MGL Ch. 40A requires that a parcel have frontage on a public way in order to be a legal Form A lot,” he said. “An easement does not constitute frontage. The proponents are trying to establish access by easement as complying with the legal requirement for frontage. There is no Deed for 52R that establishes frontage on a public way and no Deed for 52R stating any easements for 52R over abutting properties. Illusory frontage is not allowed by this MGL Ch. 40A statute.”
Additionally, neighbors note, the wood-frame building is 58 inches from a Sunoco gas station at the corner of Central Avenue and River Street, a distance that not only violates the requirements of the zoning code, but could present a safety risk in the event of a fire, either in the building or the gas station.
Lombardi-Verticelli counts that as another factor that should have excluded 52R from being built as-of-right — or being built at all.
“They asked the gas station owner if they could put ladders and scaffolding on his property so they could install siding on the building,” she said.
The gas station owner refused.
The ease and speed with which Dempsey was able to put up his as-yet waterless building contrasts sharply with Lombardi-Verticelli’s own experience with ISD when she and her husband sought a permit to finish the basement of their home, which is in the same zoning district, less than 100 feet from 52R.
The permit was not granted as-of-right. First, Lombardi-Verticelli petitioned the ZBA.
“We were denied our permit,” she said.
Then Lombardi-Verticelli had to inform all neighbors within a 300-foot radius of her property of her plans, hold two community meetings, then return to the ZBA board.
“I had to pay fee on top of fee,” she said. “I’ve asked our elected officials how it is that the process for me is different than it is for these large-scale projects.”
The 52R and 54R projects are not the only dense developments planned for the neighborhood. Across from Taylor Terrace on Temple Street, a historic single-family house was condemned after a developer removed part of its roof, leaving the structure open to rain for months. The developer who had purchased the property then tore down the building, with plans to put in a multifamily building.
The Taylor Terrace neighbors say they fear the neighborhood is being overdeveloped amid Mayor Martin Walsh’s call for increased housing production in Boston.
Developers are looking at this area like a goldmine,” said Joan Harrington, who lives on Manchester Street. “They’re building in such a way the properties are on top of each other.”
Even more worrisome, Tondorf-Dick says, is the low success rate of abutters who challenge development projects on the grounds of legitimate zoning violations.
“Zoning is supposed to protect the abutters, not the developers,” he said.