State senator and City sued over home renovation

A neighbor is suing state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz over major renovations underway at her Forest Hills home.

Chang-Díaz and her husband, Bryan Hirsch, have raised the roof to expand the attic of their house at 3-5 Bremen Terrace. Brian Wells, whose 64 Orchardhill Road house abuts the property, claims the project exceeds the zoning height limit and was done without a proper variance, permits or public notice. Wells, who is an attorney representing himself, filed suit in Suffolk Superior Court on April 27 against Chang-Díaz, Hirsch, the City of Boston, the commissioner of the City’s Inspectional Services Department and the City Zoning Board of Appeal.

“I’m not seeking monetary gain,” said Wells, whose suit seeks enforcement of the code and a halt to the renovations. “I want something that will work for everybody.”

The City and ISD declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. Daniel Dain, an attorney for Chang-Díaz and Hirsch, said the couple did nothing wrong and that a height variance is not required.

“Sonia and Bryan take the concerns expressed by their neighbor seriously and are closely reviewing the steps that they took, along with their architect and builder, to participate in the standard City of Boston process for permitting an expansion to their home,” Dain said. “It is and has always been their intention to comply with every step of that process, and the facts show that they have done so.”

Chang-Díaz and Hirsch bought the house last year. Now that they are expecting their second child, they were looking to expand the house’s living space to accommodate their growing family, Dain said. That involves turning the attic into a full, livable third floor.

Chang-Díaz and Hirsch needed, and received, one zoning variance for floor-to-area ratio.

The dispute centers on the 35-foot height limit for buildings in the local zoning code. Wells says the final design exceeds that limit by more than 10 feet without a variance. He also claims that plans shown to neighbors prior the work showed a height increase of no more than 2 feet, which would have kept the project under the zoning limit. A change in the style of the roof during the design is the source of the dispute.

“I expected a change to the roofline,” Wells said. “I did not expect a change in the height of the structure, [beyond] maybe add[ing] one or two feet. The house already stood at 32 feet tall.”

Dain said that when the couple sought the FAR variance, which was approved in March, they provided Wells with a form letter describing the project, and which he signed. That letter, a copy of which Dain provided to the Gazette, says the project “requires raising the roof six or seven feet.”

The letter goes on to say, “This has no negative impact on me or my neighborhood. I see no reason why this should not be approved.”

Wells acknowledging signing the letter. But, he said, he did so on the basis of drawings that showed a different, lower roof style.

Wells provided copies of those drawings to the Gazette. The drawings show a roof that slopes away from the streetfront—as the house originally had—while the actual building now has a sharply peaked roof on the streetfront. There is no way to tell from the drawings alone whether the overall roof height is the same as planned or how it would be interpreted under zoning code.

The lower-sloped roof style is called a hip roof, and the style actually built is called a gable roof. Dain said that both styles were vetted by neighbors.

Dain said the couple hosted an open house to show the roof plans, and that Hirsch also met with neighbors who missed the open house—including Wells. Hirsch asked for input on roof style, which can be changed as-of-right by owners, but can also “affect street presence,” Dain added.

According to Dain, neighbors did not have a preference between the previous hip roof and the more pronounced gable roof.

During a Boston Redevelopment Authority design review process, Dain said, the roof style was changed to the gable formation to accommodate future solar panels.

“It was not what they had presented,” Wells said of that final design.

His lawsuit complains that the ZBA refused to hear his appeals and that City officials would not let him see the plans when he sought an update.

Asked how the project harms his interests, Wells said, “If your next-door neighbor doesn’t follow zoning laws, it harms properties around it. But I’m not commenting on my own harm.”

While Wells is suing Chang-Díaz and Hirsch, he also said he is not accusing them of any deliberate wrong-doing.

“I want to give them benefit of the doubt,” Wells said. “I hope it was an honest mistake. I don’t want to imply there was anything nefarious.”

Photos of the renderings Brian Wells says were presented to him before project construction began. (Courtesy Photo)

Photos of the renderings Brian Wells says were presented to him before project construction began. (Courtesy Photo)

The house at 3-5 Bremen Terrace on May 15, showing its new roofline. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

The house at 3-5 Bremen Terrace on May 15, showing its new roofline. (Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira)

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