Group Suing City for Approving 50+ Variances for Condos at Allandale Woods

The following was provided by Tony LaCasse of the Friends of Allandale Woods.

A broad coalition of neighborhood residents and groups are suing the city of Boston to enforce its own zoning laws, in order to protect one of its most pristine parks. A group of abutters supported by the Friends of Allandale Woods Coalition has filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court to stop the building of 18 — million-dollar plus condominiums on a two-acre lot, which is zoned for single-family residences.

The picturesque parcel with a 19th century farmhouse overlooks Allandale Woods, a Boston Parks forest on the West Roxbury/Jamaica Plain border. In December, the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) approved more than 50 variances that waived nearly every building guideline specifically established for the scenic neighborhood.

Despite the opposition of six Boston city councilors and all of the adjacent neighborhood associations and councils, the ZBA approved the building of 45-foot tall, luxury townhouses in exceptional density on a steep slope overlooking a large section of this 86-acre woods. In contrast with the rural character of the neighborhood, all front yard requirements have either have been waived by the city or approved for use as one of more than 40 parking spaces.

A trail map of Allandale Woods

The ZBA okayed once prohibited basement units and approved not having sidewalks for the development’s narrow access road. The lawsuit states that the developer, the Wonder Group, had submitted “not one scintilla of evidence” to meet the very specific requirements for hardship that must be met to grant even one variance, much less more than 50, on such a sensitive and controversial site.

The project claims of sustainability are greatly exaggerated as it is completely car dependent with more than two parking spaces allocated per unit, and the site is not near public transportation. The energy efficient design features of the structures are laudable, but rarely does a housing project come with such high external environmental costs and risks. Allandale Woods is the jewel of Boston Parks Urban Wilds program, which are properties managed for their sense of seclusion in the city. These towering townhouses will loom over and be seen throughout the eastern quarter of the woods effectively removing 20 acres from an urban wild’s primary purpose.

The proposed development is also immediately upslope of one of Boston last two vernal pool sites. These extremely sensitive wetlands are a major feature of Allandale Woods and had been previously described by Boston Parks as “the most important ecologically significant site in the city of Boston.” The principal reason that there are only two vernal pool sites left in the city is they that are easily disturbed and destroyed. An abutter offered to pay for a hydrological study of the site as part of the permitting process, to which the developer declined.

Allandale Woods

The Wonder Group has promoted the project on its claims of being the first “net zero energy” development in Boston. However, the BPDA on its very own website lists a 14-unit project in Roxbury’s Highland Park neighborhood and others as the city’s first.

There are also concerns about affordability and the lack of affordable housing. The developer has stated that there would be more than $20 million in capital spending, thus the prices for these luxury townhouses will be well in excess of $1,000,000 each. Nearly six months after having the project approved by the BRA board, the developer reduced the number of units from 20 to 18, which under the city’s complex affordable housing formula allowed the developer to reduce the number of onsite affordable units from three to one.

The case will be argued and decided on the technical points of zoning law, but this particular project has become a political flashpoint in the neighborhoods as to whether zoning has any relevance to Boston city officials.

Polly Selkoe, a member of the 550-household Jamaica Hills Association said, “If the ZBA can completely ignore the designated zoning uses and density allowed in a neighborhood and also fails to protect environmentally sensitive conservation land, then what is the sense of having zoning in Boston.”

The ZBA’s Allandale Woods decision is the capstone case on a mountain of neighborhood discontent over what is widely perceived as a developer-driven process that exploits insider relationships. Projects that dramatically exceed zoning are completely “pre-baked” between the BPDA and the developers before there is any meaningful public input. Many citizens openly question the value of showing up to public hearings.

For those Boston citizens who feel shut out of the city’s development process, we want the Allandale Woods lawsuit to be their case — a citizen-based effort to protect a public park. Hopefully in the long run with judicial correction, the city of Boston will prioritize thoughtful planning with meaningful public input as an important priority.

Click here for more information about Allandale Woods.

Click here for the city’s webpage about Allandale Woods. 

  • AlanThinks

    It is puzzling as to why there continues to be such opposition to the proposed development at 64 Allandale road. The developer has scaled back the proposal by several units, taken extra measures above and beyond requirements to protect the neighboring wetlands, and offered to donate $50,000 to the city Urban Wilds program to benefit the upkeep and improvement of the woods. Contrary to the signs some have placed in their yards, the development, which will not be built in the Woods and will border only a few hundred feet it, will not result in the 68 acre woods needing to be saved from anything. Indeed, given the great threats from rapidly advancing climate change the development, which will be constructed at the highest energy efficiency level possible (platinum LEED), will help to reduce that threat. Homes will be built on the two acre property whether they are less efficient McMansions that are out of place or the attractively designed and carefully landscaped townhouses proposed. As a longtime friend of the woods where I run weekly and volunteer occasionally, I am not afraid of the proposed development.

  • Hugo_JP

    What’s the purpose of having zoning rules and regs on the books if they get ignored so easily? I’m generally pro-development but I can’t imagine that this 2 acre lot is so critical to Boston’s future that 50 variances had to be given to the developer so that 18 expensive townhomes could be built.
    If the zoning rules are no longer relevant, then take them off the books – but don’t give developers with deep pockets and connections a free pass.

    • Vlad Richey

      Let the JP/ROX process be a great representation of how difficult it is to update the zoning code. They’re 2 years into and it still hasn’t been made into new zoning regulations yet.

      For this lot, making sweeping zoning changes make even less sense. As many have pointed out, this is an isolated parcel surrounded by woods and state land. Why do a large scale rezoning when only one parcel is buildable?

      It makes much more sense to examine what is appropriate for the lot on its own and approve that, which is what happened here. This takes far less time and allows the process to be much more targeted to this project.

      As usual, the opponents like to focus on the number of variances, rather than looking at the logic of the process. Just because you don’t agree with the outcome doesn’t mean the process failed.

      • Charles Bosse

        I think the point is that there seems to be some favoritism. If the rules are a little out of place, making a few variances makes sense. At 50, it starts to seem like either the developer got a hearty hand out or the city has so much pointless schlock on the books that a few weak promises about efficiency are all that’s needed to get the whole thing waved. But why this developer? Shouldn’t the same offer be open to anyone who wants to build high efficiency homes? Clearly placement doesn’t matter, as these are neither set to take advantage of public transportation or be clear of sensitive park land (sort of like being vegan for breakfast and lunch, there). Number shouldn’t matter: the whole point is that Boston needs more housing stock. So why not just wave zoning for anyone who can make good on certain efficiency goals? Or, if it’s actually a problem, then shouldn’t the zoning

        • Vlad Richey

          Again, I think the focus on the number of variances is misguided, especially when you dig down into the kinds of things that can trigger a zoning violation. Something like 80-85% of existing buildings in the city of Boston do not conform with the zoning code and would need variances to be rebuilt.

          Anyone who’s ever tried to do an addition on their house will quickly find that zoning violations can pile up quick.

          Yes, there are big variances (things like height, or floor area ratio) that have a big effect on the project.

          But then there are numerous tiny things. I haven’t dug into the specific violations of this project but I know simple things such as:

          -Having a front door not facing the street is a violation
          -Having a house behind another house. Pretty important for a subdivision project but still a violation

          Also, this project is 18 townhouses, which has a multiplying effect on the number of variances. If the developer grouped the houses closer together than zoning allows, that would trigger 18 separate side yard violations, even if its just one decision.

          • Adam J. Kessel

            Agreed that the focus on zoning is misguided. The main purpose of the zoning code as implemented now is to make it impossible to do anything without running the gauntlet. It took us two years to get through the process to add a three-foot bump-out as part of a breakfast nook–on the back of our house at the end of a dead-end street with no abutters. The nook itself was not a violation, but any change to the footprint, even a tiny one, needed to go to the zoning board of appeals because, like most houses, we have an existing non-conforming structure. There are many things broken about how development occurs in Boston (in my view, the biggest issue is the lack of any coordination between land use and transportation planning), but the fact that projects are given variances is the wrong focal point.

  • Monster

    I don’t always see the value in blocking development for the sake of preserving empty lots and derelict buildings. But preserving one of the small patches of wilderness left in the city is an admirable cause. The request of 50+ variances seems to suggest that the building is utterly unsuited for the plot upon which it is proposed to sit.

  • GoatWatch

    If the developer were serious about preserving the Allandale Woods, this would be a sanctuary for disabled mangey goats.