Metro, Politics, Newton

Newton’s Zoning and Planning Committee Reviews Possible Changes to Retaining Wall Requirements

Members of Newton’s Zoning and Planning Committee (ZAP) proposed changing the requirements for retaining walls in a meeting Monday night. 

The proposed changes would require a permit for walls four feet and taller and limit how closely retaining walls can be combined in height, according to Olivia James, the community engagement specialist for the Newton Planning Department. 

The change would resemble the new requirements under the Village Center Overlay District zoning, James said.

“We’re proposing that when a combination of retaining walls are within 25 feet of each other, measured from the front of each wall, you would need a special permit when they are four feet or more in combined height,” James said. 

James continued, saying the Planning Department wants to address the issues of unregulated retaining wall height or discretionary rules beyond its setback—the amount the retaining wall leans into the hill. 

“Interestingly, under the VCOD zoning, a special permit is required for all retaining walls over four feet anywhere on the property,” James said. “And this form of this ordinance formed the basis of the proposed amendment we’re discussing tonight.”

The changes would also grant a special permit to be given in special circumstances when a retaining wall is beneficial, James explained. 

“[Retaining walls would be allowed] if the lot presents challenging topography which limits the use of the property such that it could not be improved without the implementation of retaining walls,” James said.

Jennifer Caira, deputy director of the Newton Planning Department, explained that they intentionally kept permit qualifications broad, so that City Council and the Land Use Committee can consider multiple aspects of any request.

“Something the Land Use Committee can consider as part of this is how it impacts the water runoff and what potential impacts that could have to neighbors as well as their aesthetics sightlines,” Caira said.

Ward 2 Councilor-at-Large Susan Albright expressed some concerns, saying the Land Use Committee often leaves control of water run-off to the engineering department and might not consider it in the permit process, especially following the updated Stormwater Ordinance from 2022. 

“Engineering has been happy to have us [the Land Use Committee] look into it because they’re concerned too,” said Ward 3 Councilor-at-Large Andrea Kelley. “So I wouldn’t say that drainage considerations and runoff considerations are not something that the Land Use Committee will take up, as the more you look at it, the more that will empower us to look at it as well”

Josh Krintzman, Ward 4 Councilor-at-Large, said the ordinance needs to strike a balance in determining when retaining walls are necessary. 

“We’re capturing the ability to reject the retaining walls that, you know … the ones that we don’t think are helpful, but also need to make sure that we’re allowing folks who need a retaining wall to appropriately improve their property can do so,” Krintzman said.

Based on discussions with Newton’s inspectional services and to avoid complications with ongoing permits, the Planning Department recommends June 1 as the effective date for changes in retaining wall requirements, according to James. 

Newton’s ZAP agreed to hold further discussion of the possible permit amendments until a later meeting.

April 11, 2024