Lowell Sun: Land-use loophole needs a redesign

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge’s bill to reform state land-use laws just got bumped up the priority list, thanks to the Lowell Statehouse delegation that is backing its passage.

The recent controversy in Lowell’s historic Highlands neighborhood, where a developer is building a home on an undersized lot, after subdividing a bigger lot, has put the sanctity of local zoning laws on the radar screen.

The Lowell project is so out of character with other stately homes built on Livingston Avenue, which was designed by a Lowell architect in the 1880s, that it debases even the most basic instincts of urban land use. In short, it’s a crime.

Yet under state law, it’s legal.

Eldridge’s measure, called the Comprehensive Land Use Reform and Partnership Act, would eliminate the loophole that allows developers to override local zoning laws to build homes on smaller-than-required lots that meet miminum frontage and access standards.

Eldridge’s rural district has witnessed a sharp increase in developers using the loophole to buy bigger lots, subdivide them, and build homes without local approval. These ANR — Approval Not Required — lots have been on the state’s books for 35 years.

The economics of building single-family homes in communities that require a minimum 2 acres per home is most likely responsible for the rise in ANR projects.

Attempts to change the the ANR stipulation have failed numerous times, a tribute to the strength of the homebuilders’ lobby on Beacon Hill. Yet what was once a strictly suburban issue has spread to all communities, and legislators appear poised for action. The Sun endorses a retooling of the ANR provision to make local zoning boards the absolute authority for approval.

The city of Lowell, likewise, has to tighten up its zoning code so that the loophole is rendered useless.

Still, we find it disheartening that city officials didn’t do more to scrutinize this project last October when the developer, John Faneros, first applied to have the bigger lot subdivided. City Engineer Lisa DeMeo approved Faneros’ application even though the new lot size squeezed by the zoning code by a mere 4 inches. The Planning Board also signed off. Shouldn’t a red flag have gone up? Interestingly, the city is now planning to get a second opinion from an independent land surveyor to determine if the lot size does in fact meet the requirements.

We can see why Highlands residents are disgusted. They’ve been calling City Hall for months, but officials have taken the company line that there is nothing they can do. The project is legal and that’s that, the residents have been told.

What’s legal and what’s right are not always one in the same. That’s why laws are changed. The Livingston Avenue project is a case in point. City Hall should have been working to shut this project down or at least delay it for legislative review. Instead, a neighborhood’s historic character has been violated without a fight.

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