Board cautious about accessory hotel rooms

To suit Lark Hotels application
Thu, 11/07/2019 - 6:00pm

The New Shoreham Planning Board expressed caution and concerns for the potential impacts of adding language to the towns hotel ordinance for the Old Harbor Commercial district. The board made its opinions known at it’s special meeting, Wednesday, October 30th.

The Planning Board is seeking analysis and information regarding impacts to properties in the Old Harbor district before ruling on Lark Hotels request to amend the regulations.

Lark Hotels is seeking to amend the hotel ordinances in order to facilitate its needs for developing the Gables Inn property. Its application calls for refurbishing the historic inn, installing a pool, creating two rental units in an existing barn and employee housing in a relocated cottage at the rear of the property and constructing four poolside cottages.

Per its request, Lark intends to construct, and enlarge the existing Gables Inn property in the Old Harbor district and add accessory hotel room structures, known on its application as poolside cottages. The hotel developer indicated that the dimensional requirements it seeks includes a 20,000 square foot minimum lot size, maximum lot coverage of 50 percent; maximum lot building coverage for the main building of 25 percent; with 10 percent for the accessory buildings; and a building height limit of 35 feet.

According to the Planning Board’s agenda for the meeting, Lark’s proposed amendments “would provide additional special use standards for hotels and inns in the Old Harbor Commercial Zone,” and “create an Accessory Hotel Room as a new use allowed by a Special Use Permit accessory to a hotel in the zone.”

The board expressed reservations about, in essence, opening a Pandora’s box by expediting approval for amending the ordinance to cater to an applicant, partly due to impact and the fact that other hotels and/or inns would then be permitted to create similar redeveloped properties in the district.  

Attorney Joe Priestly, representing Lark Hotels, did not deny the amendment could open the door in the district. He also said his client’s aim is to achieve 25 percent of lot coverage on the property for its main hotel building, and 10 percent for accessory hotel rooms. “This will allow us to expand the hotel,” said Priestly, noting that the amendments would make the Gables Inn, and other hotels in the district, “a conforming use.”

“I’m worried about unintended consequences” from the amended ordinance, said Chair Margie Comings. “What if The National Hotel does the same,” she said, referring to potential redevelopment, and the addition of more rooms, or adding accessory hotel rooms, by expanding the property per the revised zoning ordinance. “That’s where I get very nervous.”

“The National Hotel already exceeds the 25 percent lot calculation” for its property, said Priestly, before noting that while the opportunity is for this type of development to occur, he didn’t think that existing property owners would act to exploit the amended ordinance.

“We don’t know that” for sure, said Comings. “What’s true today, may not be true more than five years from now.”

Comings also voiced her concern for converting accessory hotel rooms into buildings for other uses. “I want to make sure that these hotels don’t become condominiums. That was a discussion we had a number of years ago,” she said, noting that language in the zoning ordinance prohibits the installation of kitchens for this type of structure. “So we should keep that in mind.”

Lark Hotels is requesting that the ordinance stipulates that: “No kitchen or food preparation facilities are allowed in individual units regardless of form of ownership and use pattern.” 

Board member Tony Pappas, who has facilitated construction of affordable housing on the island, said he thought a focus should be placed on the “economic” impact, noting that the island is in need of more rooms. “If people want to stay overnight there are x number of rooms that are available,” he said. “When supply is not as great as demand the price goes up.”

Pappas said if the island has hotels charging “astronomical prices, we’re not going to have the average person coming in and enjoying our community. One of the things I value about our community, and I would like to see it staying that way going forward, is that we appeal to all segments of the economic spectrum. I think that more hotel rooms available would be a good thing for the socioeconomic aspects of our community.”

Pappas called for a “parcel-by-parcel analysis” of the zone, and noted that the dialogue about adding more rooms does not ignore the fact that there are still density issues; aesthetic issues, etc., that need to be considered as well before voting on amending the ordinance. 

Priestley said he heard that the Block Island Chamber of Commerce said that more hotel rooms are needed on the island. “Did you hear that?” he asked Rich Cooper, a developer for Lark Hotels, seated beside him.

“We were turning people away every night in July and August,” said Cooper, referring to the demand at the Surf Hotel on Dodge Street, its companion operation, during the summer season. The Surf Hotel, which Lark renovated, converting it into a boutique hotel under its Block Island Beach House umbrella, has 33 rooms.

At the meeting’s conclusion, Comings said that Lark’s requested amendments would institute a “significant change” to the commercial zone, and requires further study before a decision can be made, including drafting its advisory to the Town Council

The Planning Board will continue the discussion at its next regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 13 at 4 p.m. The Town Council set its public hearing date for the proposed amendments for Wednesday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m.