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Brookline Newcomer

Another backyard paved over?

Published in the Brookline TAB

December 16, 1999

In November, when I called for an end to Brookline's overnight parking ban and wrote "It's time to mine the gold in the streets, and stop encouraging homeowners to pave over their backyards," I didn't know that some of my own new neighbors were caving in to that encouragement.

My wife and daughter and I were happy last August to find a small but convenient condo in a residential neighborhood. One of the best things about it is right outside our window--the condo's communal backyard, with its trees and grass and quiet refuge from the street. People set up grills there in the summer, and their dogs exercise every day. Our apartment may be cramped, but the yard makes it seem like a home.

Our daughter's out there whenever the weather allows and sometimes when it doesn't, circling on her bike, burying herself in leaves, looking for bugs, splashing in the rain, holding her kitten's leash as it tries to climb a tree. We look out the window and watch her at play, and we imagine her growing up here.

But then, just a couple of weeks ago, we learned that some of the condo trustees, motivated by the management company whose fiscal eye is on our bottom line, want to turn the yard into a parking lot and rent out spots for $100 a month.

One trustee assured us that the condo association is unlikely to vote to kill the yard. But because of Brookline's artificially induced parking shortage and the association's increasing need for more money for upkeep, we're afraid that enough of our neighbors might opt for the lot. The fact that the trustees decided to spend a couple of thousand dollars to draw up plans is not a good sign.

The excitement has gone out of our move. We wouldn't have bought the condo if we'd been told the yard might be parking lotted. So we sit in stunned silence looking at the trees, no longer talking about fixing up the place, no longer thrilled to be here.

We brainstorm schemes to prevent this from happening. We hesitate to battle our neighbors, many of whom don't yet know us for the easy going, reasonable people we like to think we are. But the thought recurs: what can we do? We have to do something, and overturning Brookline's parking ban might take longer than the few weeks we have left.

We look at the condo bylaws. Building a parking lot must come under "improvements," so it needs a 75% vote to pass. That's unlikely--we think. But condo documents aren't always clear. Fortunately, there's a provision for going to arbitration. But we still need something else, in case the vote goes the wrong way.

Naturally, but with trepidation, we consider a lawsuit. We've never sued anyone before, and suing neighbors isn't the best way to make friends. We're relieved to hear that other condo owners are also talking lawsuit--at least we wouldn't be the only ones.

My wife says she feels like chaining herself to a tree. Usually I'm the family hothead, so it's good to know we share the same fantasy.

In the end, I don't know what will happen. What we're really left with is an appeal to our neighbors. I hope they attend January's association meeting ready to vote against the proposal. And that the ones who can't attend don't sign any proxy that allows the trustees to vote in their place.

There's a larger issue here beyond our own yard, of course, made clear by Bob Lamm's letter in last week's TAB. Green space is disappearing all along Beacon Street and throughout North Brookline. This isn't just NIMBY. It's Not in Anyone's Back Yard.

Responding to my November column, Stanley Spiegel said the parking ban preserves the town's ambiance. My wife would like Stanley to explain how paving a yard that's surrounded by dozens of residents will improve a neighborhood's ambiance. The town's streets might look clear and clean, but the view down rows of paved-over yards gets pretty grim.

Maybe more Brookline homeowners should step into their own yards, look up at the trees, and think about priorities. Maybe more condo and apartment dwellers should get active in town politics. Instead of reaching for the chainsaw, let's get rid of the ban.

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