Should Newton follow state guidelines, or be more restrictive?  Which projects should be allowed to continue?

Construction and development has become a hot topic once again in our fair City over the past several weeks.  There is growing frustration from a group of Newton residents who feel that Mayor Fuller is unfairly discriminating against their single-family renovation projects while allowing large developer-owned multi-family projects to continue.  The dividing line appears to be allowing construction projects that “increase the housing supply” to continue (e.g., tear-downs of single family homes to build 2-family condos, large multifamily developments, etc.) whilst stopping construction projects to repair or renovate existing single-family homes, even if not currently inhabited by the owners.

Back in March, Governor Baker and the state issued guidelines on managing construction projects during these unprecedented times, allowing construction to proceed while following new social distancing guidelines.  While most of our surrounding towns followed these to the letter, on April 1st, Mayor Fuller issued additional, narrower guidelines including a blanket suspension of all resident-owned, single-family renovation/addition projects – while leaving large developer projects free to continue.

Does this seem fair?  Should Newton follow state-level guidelines as many of our neighbors are doing – trusting contractors to follow state-level construction guidelines, or should we take a more conservative approach in our City?  Which projects should be allowed vs. not?  Where should the line be drawn?  Who should decide?  Discussion most welcome!

Here’s a copy of a letter that was sent to the Mayor and City Council by a group of concerned residents on 4/23.  Full disclosure, I am one of the co-signers.

Dear Mayor Fuller:
We are writing with an urgent plea for you to modify the city’s position  on residential construction projects.
We are all homeowners in Newton.  We all embarked on substantial home renovation or rebuild projects.  For some, it was elective. For eothers, our existing homes were irreparably damaged, and we had no option other than to rebuild.  We all currently occupy alternative temporary housing in and around Newton, and our existing projects are now on indefinite hold due to the city’s unique interpretation of Governor Baker’s order pertaining to construction.
We believe your interpretation of Governor Baker’s order is incorrect and that projects in process are permitted to continue.  We believe the city of Newton has no unique challenges that require tighter restrictions on construction.  We believe it is unfair to allow large developer construction projects, city infrastructure projects, landscaping work and more to continue while selectively limiting projects like ours. We are, of course, deeply concerned about the potential spread of Covid-19 to those working on our projects as well as the broader community.   We agree that all construction should adhere to strict public health guidelines, but believe it is not sensible to have a blanket rule prohibiting all projects that do not expand the housing supply.
As residents and taxpayers, we expect an open, fair and thoughtful rule making process in normal times.  Times of crisis are no exception, and indeed, now is when leadership is most critical.  Newton should be able to do better by its citizens beyond vague and broad proclamations issued via email.  Construction projects similar to ours continue as we speak in neighboring communities such as Needham, Wellesley, Belmont and Brookline. Nantucket balanced the needs of its community with public interest and has allowed construction to continue under certain conditions such as a single worker in an unoccupied house.  Notably, Mayor Walsh issued draft guidance on 4/17 for the city of Boston to allow residential remodel work in dwellings of 3 units or less as included in its definition of construction work essential to the safety and well-being of its residents.
We believe a reasonable, balanced approach is similarly possible in Newton.  At a minimum, please allow construction to continue on non-spec, single-family projects where the owner is not currently living in the property and for which a permit was issued on or before April 1, 2020 (the date of your email announcing the current position on renovations and rebuilds).  This rule is straightforward, consistent with the Governor’s order and easy to administer.  Homeowners get to go home, which frees up housing supply.  Work on unoccupied homes with appropriate measures in place is consistent with the Governor’s objective to limit the spread risk of Covid-19, especially since those same workers will otherwise be working on projects outside of Newton for as long as construction is halted here.  Cosmetic work would be unlikely to continue, as homeowners rarely undertake the intrusive and burdensome task of moving out for these types of projects. 
Our goal is not to open the floodgates of construction.  Our goal is to return home.  All of us will need to move out of our current temporary housing on or before June 30 and face a path of uncertainty, anxiety and economic hardship due to your indefinite suspension.
Please engage with us in a discussion at your earliest convenience.  

 







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