BHCA Letter to the Zoning Board of Appeal in Opposition to Zoning Relief for 7 Smith Court (Additional Floor and Roof Deck)
September 28, 2020
City of Boston Zoning Board of Appeal
1010 Massachusetts Ave, 4th Floor
Boston, MA 02118
Re: Hearing Date – September 29, 2020 – Case: BOA-999497; Address: 7 Smith Court, Ward 3; Applicants: Timothy Burke and Jeff Miller; Articles: 15(15-15-1) and 20(20-4); Purpose: Construct addition on Third Floor for new family room and bathroom, and Construct new roof Deck; For: Permit ALT903609.
Dear Chair Araujo and Members of the Board:
The Beacon Hill Civic Association is strongly opposed to the zoning relief sought by the applicants, the owner of 7 Smith Court, Jeff Miller, and his architect, Tim Burke, because if the zoning relief that is being sought is granted by the Zoning Board of Appeal (“Board”), the applicants intend to significantly and irreparably alter and damage the important historic wooden house at No. 7 Smith Court by adding a third floor to its current roof. In addition, as was evidenced during three public meetings that were held about the proposed new third floor, the vast majority of immediate abutters to 7 Smith Court have opposed the proposed addition, as directly detrimental to the enjoyment of their properties. For the reasons set forth below, the zoning relief sought by this applicant must be denied by this Board.
No. 7 Smith Court – also known as the “Joseph Scarlett Tenant House” – is a historically important wooden house on Beacon Hill. The house has remained essentially unchanged since 1811, when it is believed it was constructed. It is one of the few remaining wooden homes left on Beacon Hill. Its significance to the history of Black Americans who lived and worked on Beacon Hill in the 19th Century cannot be underestimated. It is directly across the court from the Museum of African American History, and directly abutters other important historic homes on Smith Court.
It is one of the 15 properties listed as part of the Boston African American National Historic Site (“National Historic Site”), which was created by an Act of Congress in 1980, Public Law
96-430, and the house is also on the Black Heritage Trail in Beacon Hill. As noted in Public Law 96-430, the National Historic Site was created:
“in order to preserve for the benefit and inspiration of the people of the United States as a national historic site certain historic structures and properties of outstanding national significance located in Boston, Massachusetts, and associated with the creation and development of the Boston African American community within Beacon Hill prior to the Civil War.”
As part of the National Historic Site on Beacon Hill, No. 7 Smith Court is one of those properties “of outstanding national significance” that must be preserved in its current form and without the proposed third floor addition.
Moreover, the owner of 7 Smith Court, Jeff Miller, and his architect, Tim Burke, have claimed that the proposed addition of a new floor to 7 Smith Court is not subject to the Architectural Guidelines of the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission because Smith Court is a “private way,” and therefore homes situated along the court are not subject to the preservation requirements of the Beacon Hill National Landmark District. As such, only action by this Board can stop the proposed addition to this important 200 year old historic little house that is in clear violation of Boston Zoning Code (“Code”) and that will be very detrimental to the immediate abutters who have strenuously objected to this project.
Brief Procedural Background
On August 9, 2019, 7 Smith Court’s owner, Jeff Miller, and his architect, Tim Burke, sought initial approval from the Boston Inspectional Services Department (“ISD”) for a permit that would allow them to add a third floor to the existing two and one half story wooden house and to also add a new roof deck. The purported purpose for the new floor was for a new family room and bathroom. On September 3, 2019, ISD denied the permit application, stating that there were two zoning code violations in the permit application: that the proposed third floor addition would lead to a total floor area ratio (“FAR”) for the property in excess of that allowable under the Code for its Beacon Hill location, and that the proposed work would also violate the rear yard setback requirements under the Code.
On November 9, 2019, the owner of 7 Smith Court and his architect appeared at a public meeting of the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Zoning and Licensing Committee, to discuss the owner, Jeff Miller’s, proposal to construct the proposed third floor addition to 7 Smith Court. This meeting was very well attended, and numerous direct abutters living on South Russell Street as well as on Smith Court, testified about their opposition to the proposal, stating that the proposed new third floor would adversely impact the light and air that their properties currently enjoy. Also, on November 29, 2019 and again on September 3, 2020, two public meetings were conducted by the Mayor’s Office of the Neighborhood Services, to discuss the proposed third floor addition to 7 Smith Court. During the two meetings, many direct abutters living on Smith Court as well as on South Russell Street, strongly opposed the proposed addition, stating that it would be directly detrimental to the enjoyment of their respective properties.
On September 14, 2020, the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Board of Directors considered the proposed third floor addition to 7 Smith Court. Because the proposed addition was opposed by the vast majority of direct abutters to 7 Smith Court, and because the proposed new third floor would result in forever adversely changing the 7 Smith Court historic home, the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to oppose the applicant’s proposed zoning relief.
The Requested Variance for 7 Smith Court Should Not be Granted
1. The Requested Variance Would Go Directly Against the Purpose of the Code’s FAR and Setback Requirements
The variance requested by Mr. Miller and his architect goes directly against the purpose of the Code’s FAR and setback requirements. The proposed third floor addition and roof deck would be directly in conflict with the density limit of the Code defined by the applicable 2.0 FAR and 10 foot rear setback for the Beacon Hill H2-65 zoning district. Here, the existing FAR of 7 Smith Court in its current condition is 2.96, which is already 48% over the allowable FAR of 2.0 for the Beacon Hill zoning district. The proposed third floor addition for which the variance is being sought would bring the house’s FAR to 3.55, which would be 76% over the allowable FAR of 2.0 for this area of Beacon Hill!
Strict adherence to the FAR and rear yard density limits of the Code is considered to be one of the most important dimensional zoning provisions necessary for the protection of the Beacon Hill National Landmark District. The Board has, in fact, denied almost every petition in the residential section of Beacon Hill seeking other than nominal relief from the FAR limit of the Code since its introduction decades ago.
We are very sympathetic to families like the Millers who want more space to remain living on Beacon Hill. The Millers’ friends on Beacon Hill, although not immediate abutters to 7 Smith Court, have expressed their belief that the Code’s requirements should “give way” in favor of the proposed “minor change” to the Millers’ historic house.
The substantial addition being sought by the Millers, however, is not “minor” and they are not seeking just “nominal relief “to the Code; to the contrary, the variance being sought would result in a very large increase in the FAR of this home, an increase directly contrary to the goals of the Code of reducing density in this historic neighborhood.
2. The Variance Requested Would Result in a Substantial Detriment to the Immediate Abutters and the General Public
As noted above, the “Joseph Scarlett Tenant House” at 7 Smith Court is a historically important wooden house on Beacon Hill that has remained essentially unchanged for over 200 years. As one of the few remaining wooden homes left on Beacon Hill that was built and owned by Black Americans in the 19th Century, its significance to the history of Black Americans generally and to those who lived and worked on Beacon Hill in the 19th Century cannot be underestimated. To now allow the proposed change to the external appearance of this historic home by adding an unnecessary third floor would be a substantial detriment not just to the home’s immediate abutters and the general public, but to the detriment of Black Americans everywhere.
As noted on the website of the National Park Service (“NPS”) for the National Historic Site, which the NPS administers, on the webpage for the Beacon Hill “Smith Court Residences,” which includes 7 Smith Court, “[a]s early as the 1790s, African Americans began to reside on the north slope of Beacon Hill. The area of lower Joy Street and Smith Court was an important center of Boston’s 19th black community. Today, the historic homes on Smith Court, along with the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School, are the best preserved physical locales available for understanding the history of African Americans in Boston.”
The house at 7 Smith Court itself dates back to the very end of the 18th Century, when, in August 1799, the lot on which 7 Smith Court now stands was sold to the African American mariner Peter Guss. After a house was built on the lot around 1811, the house was rented continuously to various African Americans, including laborers and mariners. In 1857, 7 Smith Court was bought by the African American Joseph Scarlett, a chimney sweeper who became a successful entrepreneur and real estate developer on Beacon Hill and in Boston. 7 Smith Court continued to be rented to a succession of African Americans throughout the remainder of the 1800s, and after Scarlett’s death in the late 1800’s, remained in Scarlett’s family until the early 1900s.
The proposal to alter the historic house at 7 Smith Court by adding a third floor is contrary to the preservation goals articulated in the creation of the National Historic Site, and is also contrary to those same preservation goals that led to the creation of the Beacon Hill National Landmark District. The importance of 7 Smith Court to the history of the National Historic Site and Beacon Hill must be recognized, and it should be preserved in its present form in recognition of those Black Americans who lived at 7 Smith Court and on Beacon Hill during the 1800s.
In conclusion, the Board should not allow the requested variance for the construction of the proposed new third floor addition to the historic house at 7 Smith Court. The variance request represents a flagrant disregard of the established zoning standards of this residentially zoned part of Beacon Hill, and to the City’s policy that has guided and protected our community for many decades. In addition, as was evidenced during three public meetings that were held about the proposed new third floor, the vast majority of immediate abutters to 7 Smith Court have opposed the proposed addition, as directly detrimental to the enjoyment of their properties and their quality of life. Moreover, granting such a variance to allow the alteration of the long-preserved external appearance of this historically significant home would be a substantial detriment to the general public, and to the memory of those Black Americans who worked and lived in this small but incredibly significant little house during the 19th Century.
For the reasons set forth below, the zoning relief sought by this applicants must be denied by this Board.
Very truly yours,
Robert A. Whitney
Beacon Hill Civic Association
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