I first learned about zoning regulations — one of the topics of this week’s cover story — years after I inadvertently violated one. My partner and I needed every inch of living space we could get in and around the 800 square foot home on Burlington’s Ward Street where I hung my hat for 20 years. We hired a guy to install a simple flat roof terrace off the first floor living room.
Accessed from the upstairs bedroom, the seasonal space overlooked the backyard — and beyond, the aging palisades of Rue Volz. Wisteria eventually wrapped around the woodwork and an acacia tree provided shade – until, after years of outdoor enjoyment, the decking had to be replaced. This time the builder said we needed a permit and the request was denied.
The original game was illegal, apparently. Since the house was built in 1920—literally on the shared property line with our next door neighbor—zoning laws had been established. All new construction had to be set back five feet from this boundary. The “new construction” included the terrace, although it did not expand the original footprint of the house.
We made our point to anyone who wanted to hear it, including the Burlington Zoning Board of Adjustment, now the Development Review Board. Despite a letter of support from the affected neighbor, council voted against our zoning exemption request — unanimously. The replacement deck was built but could not extend to the eastern edge of the roof. It looked a bit ridiculous because the house was only 16 feet wide.
The rules were so strict that I was surprised a few years later when a multi-unit apartment building grew on land behind us. It felt like a ship, totally out of scale with the neighborhood, and second-floor tenants looked out of their windows directly at our property, like competitors on “Hollywood Squares.”
I hated it – and I told my friend Brian Pine. At the time, he worked in the city’s Community and Economic Development office as a housing specialist; now he runs the place.
“People have to live somewhere,” he taught me, clearly annoyed to hear the “not in my backyard” refrain from someone he expected to be more enlightened.
You get so used to things being a certain way that the anticipation of change is often worse than the reality. In truth, I quickly forgot what the “view” of the bridge looked like – much like I adjust to when someone shaves their beard or gets a haircut.
The same thing happened after we moved to Lakeview Terrace in 2009: over the past decade, large apartment complexes have been built at either end of the street. I was sad at first, but I adapted. There is a lot more traffic and the street is noisier due to the greater number of passers-by, including in the early hours of the morning, after the bars have closed.
On the plus side, we have a whole host of new neighbors and a cafe at the end of the block.
Brian was right. People have to live somewhere.