Abutter objects to housing initiative

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 6:45pm
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The Planning Board gave its approval to the first phase of the town employees’ housing initiative at its most recent meeting, making its decision after hearing objections that the town’s plans conflict with court-ordered restrictions on the use of the Thomas Property.

Attorney Thomas Tarro III, representing abutter Cathy Payne, asserted that the town lacks the legal authority to develop the parcel, located at the junction of High Street and Payne Road (Plat 8, Lot 218) without approval of the state courts.

Tarro cited a R.I. Superior Court order, which restricts the rental of the existing units to “New Shoreham police officers.” Planning Board Chair Margie Comings replied, “The Police Department said they were not interested, and at that time we went on to other town employees” to find tenants.

“Has anyone applied to court to obtain permission or consent of the court with regard to the development of the property?” asked Tarro. “Has the Attorney General been notified?” Comings said she could not answer that question.

Tarro asserted that because the town owns the Thomas Property, and the town’s plans to develop the Thomas parcel “dovetails with” the creation of a proposed Community Services Zone that would include it, “I think there are multiple issues with regard to this piece of property. The most pressing one is the legal authority to do what you’ve intended to do. That needs to be clarified before you go any further. Because if you don’t have the legal authority to develop it, then all this is an exercise in futility.”

Another issue, Tarro continued, is the “conflict” in how Zoning Ordinance Section 513 F, a new provision addressing housing for town employees, applies to the Residential B zone, particularly regarding density.

More generally, Tarro asserted that the town has “a fiduciary duty to all its citizens” to apply the Zoning Ordinance fairly. The town’s decisions, he said, have “implications on the privileges and rights of property owners” in the residential zones. He questioned whether the town’s lease of the Thomas house to the Block Island Medical Center as a residence for its  medical students and residents was proper because, he said, those persons are not town employees; that term is not defined in the Zoning Ordinance or the Comprehensive Plan; and the project does not conform to the Comprehensive Plan.

Town Manager Ed Roberge responded to Tarro’s comments. There was “a sufficient legal review” at the time the town acquired the Thomas Property, he said. “The primary occupation is police officers, and then others, and there is an order in there” that establishes in what order the town can determine who can occupy the apartments.

The town leases the Thomas duplex house to the Medical Center annually, Roberge said, and the town asks the Police Department each year if any of its officers need those apartments. “We continue to practice” the annual review of housing needs required by the Superior Court order, he added.

“The Medical Center is a sufficient government function,” Roberge stated, and the housing was available to employees of “a related government function,” and the definition of those functions includes the Block Island School and the Medical Center. Regarding the applicability of the town employee housing section of the Zoning Ordinance allowing a higher housing unit density, “we believe that is correct.”

Roberge also stated that the proposed use of the Thomas Property, and the adjacent Faulkner Property, are “specific to the Comprehensive Plan,” adding that the town bought both parcels for the “reasonable use” of housing. 

After adjourning the hearing, Planning Board Chair Comings said, “I’m inclined to go ahead” and approve the town’s application for the single-family home. “And down the road, if there are any legal ramifications, we will talk to the lawyers again.” The board took the uncommon step of considering a proposed decision at the meeting, rather than hold up construction by waiting until the next meeting. The vote to approve the Development Plan Review for the single-family home was unanimous.

Roberge’s presentation of the plan itself at the opening of the public hearing had been uncontroversial. He made clear that the application before the Board concerned only the new single-family house proposed for the lot under the current Residential B zoning rules, separate from proposed renovations of the existing duplex into a four-unit building. (Comings later clarified that the project also “has nothing to do with” the proposed Community Services Zone, which was the next item on their agenda.)

The proposed modular home will be about 1,600 square feet, served by underground utilities, including town water and sewer, Roberge said. Construction is projected for fall 2019.

As for the renovations on the existing duplex, Roberge said, “We’ll be back; we think it will be mid-year” when the town returns to the Planning Board with a separate application for that second phase of the initiative.

“We hope to have the whole site complete by spring 2020,” he added.

The Planning Board’s next meeting will be Wed. March 27 at 3 p.m.