Plans to reconstruct multi-family destroyed by fire denied by ZBA

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Plans to reconstruct multi-family destroyed by fire denied by ZBA
Firefighters responded to a fire at 129 Maple Street in this photo from 2021. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

NORTHBOROUGH – An application to reconstruct a building destroyed by a fatal fire in 2021 was denied by the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) in late November.

What was proposed

The project at 129 Maple St. was proposed by David Cooley.

“I think my team has done a great job taking a building that had a fire in it where someone was killed, and coming up with a plan and rebuilding it in a safe manner with a full fire-suppression system in it,” said Cooley during the Oct. 24 ZBA meeting.

The plans called for the existing residence — a 2.5-story building with five one-bedroom apartments — to the razed. In its place would be a five-unit multi-family building. The first floor of each unit would contain the living room, kitchen and dining area; the second floor would include a bedroom. There would also be unfinished basements.

The project was first presented to the ZBA in June, and project engineer Brian Marchetti presented changes to the plans to the board on Oct. 24.

During the October hearing, Sandy Howard, who lives on nearby Johnson Avenue, said she didn’t want the project on the property saying she didn’t think it fit the neighborhood.

“I chose this area because of the aesthetics, because it was quaint. I don’t want townhouses, apartments right on my corner,” Howard said.

Cooley responded that the property had been a multifamily home for nearly 200 years.

“It’s an absolute disaster and embarrassment to the town [with] the condition that it’s in. Here I am as an investor taking multi-million dollars and coming here and building something beautiful like this,” said Cooley.

Deliberations

The public hearing was closed on Oct. 24, and the board made their decision on Nov. 28.

The residence was built in 1849 and predates town zoning. However, multi-family dwellings aren’t permitted in the Residential C zoning district, and the structure and its use are non-conforming.

According to ZBA Chair Paul Tagliaferri, the town has protections in its zoning bylaws that if there is a fire, the applicant could rebuild and use the pre-existing nonconforming structure as long as the size of the footprint and volume aren’t expanded. The applicant wouldn’t need to go before the ZBA for approval to rebuild what currently exists and could apply for a building permit, he said.

“The applicant has chosen to expand both the use and the structure, and that is why we are presented with this case,” said Tagliaferri.

He said he made the decision was based on the information presented during the public hearing, including the size, scope, style and character of the pre-existing building compared to the proposed building.

“You had an 1850s-style farmhouse of roughly 3,900 square feet, and the new structure is two- to three-times [that size],” Tagliaferri said.

He also argued that it set a bad precedent for other projects in town.

Member Fran Bakstran said the proposed project was also a five-unit rental property and argued that there wasn’t an expansion of use.

“The size of the building is bigger. The units themselves are bigger, but they are still one-bedroom, five units on a site that is now larger because of the consolidated lots,” she said. “I don’t see how a larger structure is detrimental to the neighborhood. … It’s just a different style of rental property that is more current and modern and more desirable.”

Ultimately, Bakstran and Mark Rutan voted to grant a special permit with site plan approval to reconstruct a non-conforming, pre-existing multi-family structure that was destroyed by fire while Tagliaferri, Brad Blanchette and Suzy Cieslica voted against.

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