FALMOUTH — In 2006, when the town changed its zoning ordinance to protect homeowners’ views of the ocean – even if that view was across someone else’s property – it’s likely no one realized the change would eventually pit neighbors against neighbors over who gets to see the shore through a living-room window.
Thirty-six applications have been submitted to the town’s Board of Zoning Appeals since the rules were changed to prevent homeowners from putting additions on their houses if those additions had a “significant impact” on a neighbor’s water view. Of those, 26 were approved outright, four were approved after some changes were made to the plans, and six were denied.
“That is a higher rate of denial than our typical rate,” board Chairman Jay Meyer told the Town Council on Oct. 24.
The board wants the council to consider changing or eliminating the pertinent section of the zoning ordinance because its members believe the rule is ambiguous. They have offered a variety of options for councilors to consider, including a mathematical formula that would determine someone’s view impact, utilizing the state’s definition of view impact from cell phone tower and wind turbine impact laws, and outright repeal of the section.
“We can do better,” board member Jonathan Berry said. “We’re pitting neighbor against neighbor without any objective criteria.”
Berry said that when the board deliberates and votes on these questions, its decisions are rarely unanimous.
The larger issue, he said, is that these disputes affect relationships within the neighborhoods, and could eventually draw a lawsuit against the town.
“This has created far too much acrimony between neighbors. It’s really unnecessary,” Berry said.
No one knows that better than Councilor Chris Orestis.
Orestis and his wife bought a house on Ayers Court near Town Landing in 2003. He said they specifically asked the code enforcement officer how much they would be able to expand the house in the future.
“He gave it to us in writing. He said that the house still had a 30 percent allowance left for expansion,” Orestis said.
But that was before the town changed the rules.
Orestis applied to expand the home in 2009.
“We did everything we were supposed to do. We reached out to the neighbors, showed them our plans … we hired an assessor to come in and analyze our cost and analyze the impact on views from different locations,” he said.
When he showed up at the zoning board meeting, though, Orestis found the room full of his neighbors. They came with charts, photographs and drawings. They gave emotional testimony for more than an hour, he said. Orestis’ plan for expansion was unanimously denied.
“After that, neighbors kept asking my wife when we were going to move,” he said. “They weren’t threatening, but they were suggesting we move on.”
So they sold their house and left.
Since then, Orestis said he has heard from residents who had similar experiences. Zoning board meeting minutes in the past several years also contain records of neighbors – and their lawyers – who came out to oppose additions that would affect their views of the water.
Changes to the rules are being reviewed by the Community Development Committee, a subcommittee of the Town Council. Orestis isn’t on that committee, but he said he hopes to be directly involved in the changes.
“I’m going to make sure the ambiguity is removed. Standards have to be applied,” he said. “Or it should be an outright repeal.”
Although he addressed the council, Meyer did not respond to a request for additional comment.