The Commissioner — Winter 2011

Commission Profile

Brookline, Massachusetts, Planning Board

By Karen Finucan Clarkson

Designed to serve primarily as an advisory body to the town's Zoning Board of Appeals, the Brookline Planning Board uses its position to influence development in this built-out suburb on Boston's western edge. "Part of our job is to work out the details, to reach some sort of compromise, to come up with a solution so a project can ultimately go forward to the Zoning Board of Appeals," says planning board chair Mark J. Zarrillo, AICP.

Established in 1914 as a panel of five, the board recently was expanded to seven members, at least one of which must be an urban planner, says Jeff Levine, AICP, Brookline's planning director. The town's Board of Selectmen appoints planning board members to staggered five-year terms. The planning board's most senior member has served roughly 20 years, according to Levine. "It's good to have someone on the board with some historic knowledge," he says.

Like the town's first planning board chairman — Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. — Zarrillo is a landscape architect. "I'm honored to sit on the planning board that he started," says Zarrillo.

Brookline's planning board meets twice a week — on Wednesday mornings and Thursday evenings — for several hours. Sign and facade applications, which the board has the statutory power to decide on, are considered at the morning meeting.

Because the planning board has a seat on several ad hoc boards in town — such as the Housing Advisory Board and Climate Action Committee — and design advisory teams for major development projects, some members attend as many as 10 meetings a month. That level of commitment, combined with a lack of compensation, "can make it a challenge to get members," says Levine.

Among its duties is the approval of the town's capital improvements and comprehensive plans. "The town administrator's office does most of the heavy lifting on the CIP, so board members only have to review it, make changes, and sign off on it," says Levine.

Brookline's comprehensive plan is updated every 15 years or so, according to Levine. The planning board approved the most recent plan in 2005.

While the planning board does not have the power to amend the Brookline Zoning By-Law, it does "opine on zoning amendments proposed to the Town Meeting and, occasionally, proposes zoning amendments of its own," says Levine. In November, Town Meeting members considered five zoning by-law amendments dealing with issues pertaining to residential parking, a solar overlay district, and wireless telecommunication antennas and towers, among others.

The planning board plays a vital role in protecting community character as it has the authority to adopt design guidelines for specific parts of the town and to appoint design advisory teams to assist in the review of projects that may significantly affect the look and feel of an area.

"I think most people would agree that the planning board does a really good job, not in the sense that everyone likes every decision," says Zarrillo, "but that the decisions are balanced and fair and take into consideration what neighbors want."

In Search of Compromise and Consensus in Brookline?

"There's a new way of doing business and some developers get it and some don't," says Mark J. Zarrillo, AICP, chair of Brookline's planning board. Compromise is key in a community where open-space, historic-preservation, and affordable-housing groups are known to take issue with development proposals.

"Perhaps the biggest thing the planning board wrestles with is the fact that Brookline is built out and, as a result, wherever in town someone wants to build, people tend to get upset, sometimes legitimately and sometimes because change is hard," says Jeff Levine, AICP, the town's planning director.

Brookline's Zoning By-Law guides planning board members. "It's called an approval process, not a denial process," says Zarrillo. "Most people approach the process in a spirit of compromise, willing to work out the details necessary for approval."

Here is an example of their win-win approach. Zarrillo explains how a developer wanted to build multifamily housing on land occupied by a Victorian house. "In the end, instead of tearing it down, he moved the house off the property while he constructed 12 new units. Then, he moved the house back to the property and placed it on a new foundation," he says. "What the historic preservation folks got was an old house. What the developer got were new units to sell. What the housing folks got were two affordable units."

There are pockets where development is possible. The owner of Hancock Village, a post-World War II community developed for returning soldiers and their families, has been talking about doubling the size of the nearly 800-unit neighborhood. "The zoning, put in place when originally developed, allows for more development than was built," says Levine. "But, there's concern about the impact additional development will have on the community, particularly the schools, which are overcrowded."

Hancock Village is in the board's future, according to Levine, who acknowledges that it's been difficult establishing a dialogue between residents and the developer. "The feeling is that they [the residents] can either come along for the ride and help shape it or oppose it and not have any influence, as there clearly will be significant new development there."

Another top issue is environmental sustainability, says Zarrillo. Town Meeting members recently amended the building code to require that all new homes be 20 percent more energy efficient. "We still need to do something with older, existing structures," says Zarrillo, "so that they can catch up. We need to move beyond new construction and municipal buildings, which really are just a drop in the bucket."