The owners of a "microgreens" farm on Norton Street in Readville yesterday sued the Zoning Board of Appeal and the developer it gave permission to build three houses on a lot next door, saying shadows from the houses would reduce the amount of light hitting their greenhouse, where they do the bulk of their farming.
In a suit filed in Suffolk Superior Court, We Grow Microgreens also says the three houses on a roughly 20,000-square-foot lot would also violate the low-density nature of Boston's southernmost neighborhood, as enshrined in the city zoning code and that the board failed to cite any hardships that would have allowed the variances the proposal got. The farm is asking a judge to annul the board approval and bar ISD from issuing any building permits for the proposed houses.
At a hearing last month, the zoning board approved plans by Falcucci Properties to replace a condemned single-family house with three new single-family homes with two-car garages and a shared driveway at 13, 15, and 17 Norton St. - with a proviso that the developer eliminate proposed attics as a way of dropping the buildings' heights and further reducing the potential shadow impact on the microfarm. Falcucci had originally proposed a single building with seven townhouses.
The farm is located at 21 Norton St., but now also owns the house at 19 Norton St., which it rents out, except for the backyard, which it uses for growing things.
The farm opened in 2019 on what had long been a vacant 30,000-square-foot city-owned lot that the Department of Neighborhood Development sold to Lisa Evans and Tim Smith of Roslindale as part of an effort to encourage urban agriculture. The two harvest vegetables not long after their seeds germinate, saying these "microgreens" are particularly rich in nutrients.
At the hearing, Evans argued that shadows during the winter would particularly hurt plant growth in the winter, when the greenhouse needs all the sunlight it can get during the season's short days. In the farm's legal complaint, it argues the shadows would also reduce the yield from the translucent solar panels it has mounted atop the greenhouse, driving up the farm's energy costs and cutting into its commitment to use as little carbon-based energy as possible.
Falcucci attorney Jeff Drago gave the board shadow maps, drawn up by Falcucci architect Arthur Choo, showing minimal to no shadow impact from the three buildings, especially since Falcucci would put the proposed houses 55 feet away from the farm lot line. He added the buildings would be below the 35-foot maximum height allowed for houses in the area.
We Grown Microgreens countered with their own study, by Rafi Segal, an MIT architecture professor - who worked on shadow studies involving controversial shadows on the Public Garden and the Common. Segal, whose services the farm paid $8,000 for, said that, in fact, the buildings - which he said would be slightly higher than the allowed height at their peaks - would cast shadows on the greenhouse at differing times throughout the year.
The mayor's office and the offices of City Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Michael Flaherty backed the housing proposal, saying it would bring more housing to the neighborhood and that Falcucci had shown a willingness to work with neighbors. An aide to acting Mayor Kim Janey also cited "positive feedback" from the Readville Neighborhood Watch. Craig Martin, a member of the civic group, however, said no such feedback came from the group, which he said wants to do everything it can to support "the oasis" that We Grow Microgreens has become.
Board member Eric Robinson, himself an architect, said it appeared that, if anything, 19 Norton St., the house owned by the farm, casts more of a shadow on the greenhouse than the three new houses would. Still, the board approved a motion by member Joe Ruggiero that when the buildings go through their required "design review" by the BPDA, that all three have their attics removed from plans.
The board also required Falcucci to stick to its promise to dig catch basins to keep runoff from the site getting onto the farmland - and asked Drago to ensure that condo documents for the property note that it is next to a farm - so that residents don't one day start complaining to the city about life next to a farm, even if the farm was there first.
Watch the zoning-board hearing: