Residents Challenge Shady Hill Building Permit

Locals use Zoning Board to challenge construction on Shady Hill Square

The legal attack on a developer’s plans to build over a park hit the Cambridge Zoning Board last night, with attorneys from both sides sparring over whether the height of the proposed building violates the city zoning code and whether the plan would allow fire trucks to access adjacent houses.

But despite the spirited arguing, which one board member said “left [his] head spinning,” the board deferred action on the matter until next February, saying it would allow the city’s building commissioner to examine the issues raised by the residents.

The fight centers over a piece of green space—tucked among a cluster of houses near the Harvard Divinity School—that was built in 1915 as living quarters for Harvard junior faculty.

A firm called Stonehouse Holdings took control of the green space in September and announced plans to erect a 5,000-square-foot house on the central green, known as Shady Hill Square.

Local residents, led by Dennis W. Townley, sought yesterday to invalidate the developer’s building permit. They argued that the proposed development is taller than the 35 feet allowed by the local zoning code, and that fire and garbage trucks will not be able to drive around the road that surrounds Shady Hill Square if a house is constructed over the green space.

Lawyers for the developer—as well as many of the board members—said they were concerned that residents were raising issues that fall outside of the board’s purview. They noted that the residents have filed a lawsuit, and that it addresses many of the issues—such as the ownership of and access to the square—that the residents brought before the zoning board last night.

“We are a special zoning board of appeals and we don’t have jurisdiction over all the rest of the stuff you’re talking about,” said Gus Alexander, a board member.

Lawyers for the developer also protested that residents have filed two other challenges to their project.

“They’ve been to the historical commission. They’ve been to the land court,” said attorney Thomas J. Harrington. “Let’s not create new processes.”

The board voted to allow the building commissioner to reexamine the permit with an eye toward examining the height of the proposed building and if fire trucks will be able to drive on the road that surrounds it.

For now, the city’s October order to stop work on the site will remain in effect, according to the attorney for the residents, Eric W. Wodlinger.

While residents spoke passionately against the project throughout the night, the developers, David T. Perry and Peter E. Madsen ’67, would not comment because of the pending lawsuit, referring questions to their lawyer.

But when approached by a reporter, the lawyer, Harrington, said “no, no, no,” and walked away.

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at