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Sunshine studies illuminate shadow fights between downtown neighbors



Neighbors to the mostly vacant 59 queen are worried a new home will steal their sunshine

Saving Daylight Time

Sunshine studies illuminate shadow fights between downtown neighbors


Shadow puppets are always a good time. Shadow buildings? Not so fun.

With space on the peninsula being the rare commodity that it is, homeowners are building closer to each other and it's causing some alarm that the new home next door may eclipse a prize garden or naturally lit nook.

Last week, the city's Zoning Board of Appeals heard two requests, one for construction of a Queen Street home and the other for a Colonial Street addition, where sunlight studies were required before homeowners got the OK. While the Colonial Street study allayed neighbor concerns, sunlight studies on the Queen Street property only strengthened neighbors' expectations that a new home would steal their sunshine.

When Melissa Brown and her husband were planning an addition to their Colonial Street home, they knew sunlight was a consideration for the Zoning board, but didn't realize it would be a factor in their plans.

"We did not feel we needed to defend a formal study of the sun's impact upon the neighbors' yards given the small size of the addition," Brown says. "However, once some neighbors raised the issue, we realized we needed more accurate data."

Using sunlight studies, the couple's design firm, VDL and Associates, made minor adjustments to the plans, including losing a few feet from the back and pulling a planned roof off a side balcony, to garner neighbor acceptance and eventual board approval.

The fight over 59 Queen hasn't gone quite so well, likely due to the even more crowded space homeowners find themselves in further down the peninsula. Debate over that project began in November, but was halted with a request from the Zoning Board for the sunlight study. Both the property owners, who contracted VDL and Associates, and the neighbors returned last week with competing sunlight studies. Both showed impacts on the neighbors, but it left staff undeterred in its recommendation that the city approve the building.

"There probably isn't a building that doesn't create some impact in regards to light and air on neighboring lots," says zoning director Lee Batchelder. "Any building that would go there would create these types of impacts."

The winter solstice led to the most shadow for neighbors, eclipsing an antique store at 61 Queen for a few hours in the morning and then shadowing a garden at 57 Queen at night.

"My expectation is that I'm not going to have much of a garden out there," says Louis Wright.

Whether a particular project poses a significant impact on a neighboring lot is a factor the Zoning Board must use when determining approval, but the question for the board last week was exactly what "significant" means.

"We've had sun study cases before, but this is probably one of the most significant cases that have come before us," Sam Altman told the rest of the board prior to the vote. Unfortunately for the neighbors, he stood alone in his assessment, as the other five present members voted in support of the project.

The saga isn't over for 59 Queen, though. The applicant will have to face the Board of Architectural Review on Wed., March 14.

For both of the appeals board projects, VDL and Associates used a computer program called SketchUp, a 3D design program that can create entire neighborhoods to scale to determine how a building or addition will fit in.

The cost of operating 3D modeling programs may be a burden, but it has come in handy for VDL and other firms as a useful tool to show clients what the shadows of a home might look like at any point in the day, on any day of the year. Sunlight studies once involved building physical models and placing them in comparative light outside or in a studio to determine how shadows would affect the property. But that would obviously be more time-consuming and the results may be limited to the particular hours you monitor the model.

While these are the first two projects where VDL has made public presentations, the firm has used SketchUp in the past to allay or confirm fears that a building will block a neighbor's access to sunlight.

"There's no reason to worry if we can show them what should happen," says VDL's Ginger Koon.

Considering that the demand is climbing for downtown space even as said space continues to disappear, it's a safe bet this isn't the last we've seen of the light studies.

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