New zoning amendment would restrict retaining walls

Everyone has seen them: Mammoth new houses on lots meant for smaller homes, with everything held up by retaining walls so large they could ward off invading army.

On Monday night, the Zoning and Planning Committee, in conjunction with the Planning Board, voted to approve a new ordinance amendment to require a special permit for any grading or retaining wall taller than four feet.

“To avoid complications with permits already in progress, we’ve recommended an effective date of June 1,” Olivia James, Planning Department community engagement specialist, said.

The problem

More and more small and mid-sized homes have been torn down in favor of larger ones across Newton, and that trend has popularized the use of retaining walls—meant to hold back earth on a steep slope—to support those oversized homes.

One example James noted is a lot that once contained a home modest-sized home on Chase Street in the front with a backyard that went along Braeland Avenue. That home was demolished and a much larger house was built in its place, stretching across the entire lot with the help of a massive retaining wall along Braeland Avenue.

On the left, a view of a Chase Street property’s back yard from Braeland Avenue. On the right, a current view of the proerty from Braeland Avenue with a large new house and retaining walls. Photos by Newton Planning Department

“These retaining walls are outside the setback and, under existing regulations, are allowed by-right,” James said. “In this proposed amendment to the ordinance, however, a special permit would be required for this development.”

Currently, there is no special permit required for any walls outside the setback (the area between the property line and the building, on which construction is prohibited) and no height restrictions for retaining walls anywhere on a property.

A first step

The Village Center Overlay District—the new zoning ordinance passed by the City Council in December that allows bigger construction in half of the city’s village centers by-right—requires a special permit for walls taller than four feet.

Monday’s amendment to the city’s existing ordinance would bring the rest of the city in line with the VCOD in that respect.

The language adopted in the amendment also states that the City Council must determine if the lot is challenging enough to require a retaining wall for improvement and whether the proposed wall would impact neighboring properties.

More amendments are expected down the line, but City Councilor Pamela Wright urged the committee to consider a bolder set of restrictions now.

“It’s just the beginning, and I would just challenge the committee to maybe go a little bigger and not bite this off like this is just a start and we’ll do something more down the road, because this is a problem,” Wright said.

Left: House that used to be on a particular lot in Oak Hill. Right: Larger home built in its place, with massive retaining wall in front. Photos by Newton Planning Department

Others, like City Councilor Susan Albright, who later abstained from the vote, wanted to pump the brakes to get more input from the city’s Building Professionals Group before moving forward.

But Deputy Planning Director Jen Caira said her department already consulted with that group, and the group supported the retaining wall amendment.

And James emphasized that Monday’s amendment was only a first step.

“The Planning Department, with the help of ISD [inspectional services] and engineering, will continue to explore additional zoning amendments that would further address grade manipulation, height of homes and loss of starter homes,” James said.