May 4, 2010 | last updated March 23, 2012 4:10 pm

Lot Size Sparks Debate Over Marlborough Housing Development

Westborough developer Bob Moss's plans to build 71 new homes off Interstate 495 in Marlborough have sparked a debate among city officials about whether bigger is in fact better.

Moss, who has built hundreds of homes across MetroWest, is proposing the 71 homes as part of a $20 to $25 million project on 88 acres of land dubbed Shoestring Hill. The project calls for three-bedroom homes priced between $375,000 and $400,000.

At issue in the current debate is how small is too small. In order to make the project work, Moss is seeking a change to the city's zoning laws to allow him to build on a scant, fifth-of-an-acre lot.

Clustered Construction
Marlborough zoning regulations currently allow homes in residential areas labeled as A-1 to be built on half-acre (22,500-square-foot) lots. With a special permit, developers can build homes on a third of an acre, or 15,000 square feet.

Moss, however, wants to build homes on lots as small as a fifth of an acre, or about 8,000 square feet.

If the zoning change is allowed, Moss said he will be able to keep about two thirds of the 88 acres as open space. If he has to build the homes on half-acre lots under the current regulations, he will use up almost all 88 acres of buildable land.

Moss also argues that smaller lots are in keeping with trends in development.

"We're not reinventing the wheel here," Moss said. "This is what smart growth is all about."

But city officials and residents are skeptical of the project's impact on nearby home values and about permanently changing zoning laws.

Arthur Vigeant, president of the Marlborough City Council, said the past two state administrations have encouraged communities to allow for more of these so-called "cluster developments."

"The downside is some people believe it will bring in much lower-cost housing, and there's a concern by some neighbors about what that would do for the community," he said.

A number of other communities have already embraced the "cluster" zoning model. Patrick Reffett, Natick's community development director, said within the last few years zoning bylaws have been changed in Natick to preserve open space and allow for housing developments on smaller lots.

"It's the idea of allowing increased density, with the offset that you get much greater levels of contiguous open space," Reffett said. "It's a good trade off in my estimation."

The argument against smaller lots is that smaller, less valuable homes will not collect as much tax revenue. But, Reffett said, that argument can work the other way, too.

"You're creating a different product that is more affordable to more people," he said. "Yes there are smaller lots and smaller home values, but if they are affordable and near open space, there can be value in that."

The Marlborough City Council has sent the issue to its urban affairs committee for consideration. Councilor Steven Levy, chairman of that committee, said he plans to seek input on the issue from the city's planning board and the public, a process he said could take weeks.

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