Council expands employee housing proposal

Sat, 04/14/2018 - 9:45am
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After its initial housing proposal was met with criticism from some members of the public, the New Shoreham Town Council went back to the drawing board and is now proposing that the 2.5-acre Thomas property be used for a community housing campus consisting of two separate dwellings that would house a total of seven town employees. The estimated cost for the project is about $1.5 million.

The new proposal, which was made by Councilor Sven Risom, comes a few weeks after Town Manager Ed Roberge proposed several options for town employee housing, including the purchase of an existing market-ready residential property for $1.125 million.

The Town Community Housing project that was proposed at a special Town Council work session on April 11 would involve renovations of the Thomas property at a cost of about $500,000 to create a building with six rental rooms and six bathrooms. Those rooms would accommodate police officers, and staff from the Block Island Medical Center and Block Island School.

Risom said the town would also construct a three-bedroom, two-bathroom prefab, or modular home, on the southeast corner of the property to house a senior town employee. That dwelling would cost about $800,000 to $900,000. Each of the dwellings would connect to municipal water and sewer.

“I think we have to be very respectful of the island, and respectful of many people on the island who want housing, but cannot find housing,” said Risom. “I think by offering a number of units we are helping the island as a whole; rather than just one group.”

Risom noted that if the project is approved by the taxpayers at the Financial Town Meeting on May 7, the Town Council would direct the Town Manager to complete construction for occupancy by the summer of 2019. The venture would also entail approving a new zoning ordinance for permitted use of dormitory-style dwellings for future renovation projects.

“I think this is a direction that I find exciting that would meet a lot of the Block Island current housing needs, and not pre-empt any longer-term planning issues,” said Risom. “I very intentionally tried to fit this within the confines of a long-term master housing plan.”

Second Warden André Boudreau asked Town Clerk Millie McGinnes if the town would have any problems using the Thomas property due to Violette Connolly’s deed restrictions. McGinnes said she didn’t think there would be. Roberge said that a “legal review” of the Thomas property would be conducted.

Councilor Martha Ball questioned the land use, involving the two units currently residing on the Thomas property. “This proposal looks like it would simply be reconfiguring two units to keep status quo on that property,” she said. “The existing house would turn into, not a duplex, anymore, and the new house would be a single-family home. Is that correct?”

“Yes, there are two units existing on a non-conforming lot,” said Roberge, noting that the “existing ranch house, or duplex would need to be converted into one dwelling to be fully compliant.”

“I don’t know the zoning anymore,” said Ball, who asked if there was enough land on the property to accommodate the two rental dwellings, to which Building Clerk Jenn Brady said, “Yes.”

Town Building Official Marc Tillson said there is no issue with the size of the lot. “The lot is 2.5 acres,” he said. “When you figure out the maximum lot building coverage you have about 8,000 plus square feet.”

“The issue, as Ed has pointed out, is that you have a prior existing non-conforming use of two dwelling units on one lot,” noted Tillson. “What the town would have to do is make application to the Zoning Board to relocate the non-conforming use on that property. So, you would take one of the units out of the Thomas house, and then relocate it on the property to construct a new single-family dwelling.”

Councilor Chris Willi asked why the goal isn’t to create three dwellings on the property using a $1.5 million budget.

“The issue is double density,” said Risom. “You can only put two units on that land. The minute you want to put more dwellings on that lot you’re going down the affordable housing road — then you get into who can apply, and other issues, which is a whole other discussion.”

Resident Ray Torrey, who is a member of the Block Island Health Services Board, said the bones of the Thomas house are good. “It doesn’t need a new foundation,” he said. The Medical Center has been housing residents and students in the Thomas house.

First Warden Ken Lacoste said the Town Council received letters containing advice about the housing situation from residents Socha Cohen, Steve McQueeny, and Doug Michel. They each referenced use of the Thomas or Faulkner properties to solve the island’s housing need.

Risom said his desire with conjuring the project “was to find a way to cover the debt service with enough people renting rooms. I don’t know if we can do that, but I think we can get pretty close.”

“This is the easy part,” Risom told The Block Island Times after the meeting. “The hard part is making it happen.”

The Town Council will discuss the Community Housing project at its April 18 meeting when it adopts the warrant for the Financial Town Meeting, which is scheduled for May 7.