LOWELL — Archaic. Atrocious. Byzantine.
Those are just several of the adjectives used this week to describe a decades-old state law that has allowed Christian Hill resident John Faneros to build a tiny, single-family house across the city in a Highlands neighborhood full of Victorian homes, many of them more than 100 years old. The house, under construction on a subdivided lot at 113 Livingston Ave., has enraged neighbors and city councilors.
The $106,000 house just squeaks by dimensional requirements. More infuriating, say neighbors, is that it will ruin the neighborhood’s historic character — an intangible element that recent city rezoning efforts have sought to maintain at all costs.
City officials agree it’s likely too late to stop the Faneros project, described by the local state representative, Kevin Murphy, as “atrocious.” But if legislation filed by state Sen. Jamie Eldridge is adopted, future projects proposed under the same ANR statute, or “approval not required,” will be scrutinized and possibly rejected.
The Faneros project received no local examination because it’s being built under the state’s ANR statute, also known as Chapter 40A. Under the 35-year-old law, proposals get the green light providing the building lot meets three criteria: It is 7,000 square feet or larger, has a minimum 55 feet of frontage, and has street access. The Livingston Avenue project meets all three.
“The law is just bad policy,” Eldridge said. “It is likely one of the most archaic laws of its kind in the country. At the bare minimum, local planning boards should have the authority to conduct a review on all subdivisions.”
Besides striking ANR language from the books, the Eldridge legislation, known as the Comprehensive Land Use Reform and Partnership Act, would:
* Encourage consistency between local plans and land-use regulations.
* Provide communities with new plan-implementation tools, like impact fees.
* Eliminate so-called “grandfathering.”
Eldridge’s legislation was the focus of a hearing last week at the Statehouse in front of the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government. Committee Research Director Kurt Steigel, who called the hearing productive, said there is “universal agreement” to removing ANR language — except from the home builders lobbies.
Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, called Chapter 40A “Byzantine.” He recently wrote this about ANR: “A rule that says as long as a proposed subdivision is along an established road, the project doesn’t need to go before the local planning board. It’s not that rules are lax. It’s that there are no rules. Builders don’t have to come before local government at all.”
Approval not required, Flint wrote, “can only be described as pro-builder.”
In an interview, Flint said similar bills have been defeated annually in the Legislature, primarily at the hands of powerful home-builder lobbies.
“It’s classic politics,” Flint said. “There’s a great deal of lobbying muscle up there.”
Roland Mainville, president of the Tewksbury-based Northeast Builders Association of Massachusetts, declined to comment on the Eldridge legislation.
Representatives of the association’s umbrella organization, the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts, testified at last week’s hearing.
Mark Kablack, chairman of association’s Public Policy Committee, said the organization is reluctant to support any bill that would eliminate ANR.
Kablack said permitting is often “expensive, time-consuming and not streamlined.”
He added: “More and more across the state, elected boards are under pressure to deny or overly condition a project on which they have no jurisdiction. My members are concerned about that.”
Opposing a project based solely on architectural grounds is too subjective, Kablack added.
Murphy said the Eldridge legislation “should be expedited.” Fellow Lowell Reps. Thomas Golden and David Nangle also said they’re leaning strongly toward supporting the Eldridge bill.
“I drove by that project just the other day and said ‘whoa,’ ” Nangle said.
But Murphy also said the city’s claim that it is powerless to stop the Faneros project is untrue.
“I get a kick out of Bernie Lynch and Adam Baacke laying it at our feet,” Murphy said, referring to the city manager and the assistant city manager/Division of Planning and Development director, respectively. “The city zoning code is not restrictive enough.”
Baacke disagreed, explaining again that the ANR statute has prevented city planners from having more oversight.