Community zone proposed
The public got its first glimpse of a new proposal to create a Town Housing Initiative development that would incorporate up to four town-owned properties — and perhaps land that is currently privately owned — located near the Block Island School at the intersection of High Street and Payne Road.
Town Manager Ed Roberge led a public discussion on the ambitious proposal at the Planning Board meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 1 at Town Hall. Given that there are several properties involved in the proposal, and the fact that current zoning ordinances impact each of the properties in different ways, Roberge cautioned that the proposal was not just a construction project but also an “incredibly complex policy decision” that was going to not only require debate but changes to the town’s zoning ordinances. He also said that if the idea was to move toward reality, it may require a public/private partnership to see it finalized.
Roberge described the meeting on Wednesday as a “charette” to discuss “what could be done at any one and all of these parcels. How do we maximize their potential?”
Planning Board Chair Margie Comings also urged a deliberate approach, saying that any changes to zoning ordinances must be done diligently to avoid what she called “unintended consequences” as a result of those changes.
A few members of the public, as well as representatives from various boards and town departments, were on hand.
The publicly-owned properties are the Thomas property, which has a two-apartment building located on it now, as well as the Faulkner property, located across the street from the school, the Medical Center, and the Block Island School property. Roberge said there was little that could be done with the school property and so it was not, at this point “much part of the discussion.” The private properties that were briefly discussed at the meeting are owned by Cathy Payne.
The Thomas property has been chosen as the site that could be called the first phase of the housing initiative.
At the Financial Town Meeting in May, voters approved up to $1.5 million to repurpose the existing building for town employees, and to build on the same lot a single family home for a senior town official, which in this case would be Roberge. (Pre-proposals that will gauge interest in the project will go out on Tuesday, Aug. 7, said Roberge, and must be returned by August 17.)
In order to build on the Thomas Property, and to consider further construction at the lots that are currently not developed in that location, the Town Manager is proposing that the Planning Board develop amendments to zoning ordinance section 513, which sets guidelines for the building of accessory apartments.
Roberge said the housing initiative was not just about building housing units. He envisioned that the proposal would be multi-tiered — a combination of rental units but also affordable and attainable homes to purchase. He said, in keeping with the idea that this new area could be a “town center,” that the zoning amendments be flexible enough to allow construction of a physical therapy center, a pool, or buildings for other uses, such as senior housing.
Town Planner Allison Ring said that given most community centers in other towns do not include employee housing to the extent of Block Island’s needs, she said that the zoning amendments that the town crafts will have to be “unique.”
But Roberge also said there will be limitations on what could be built on these parcels. “You wouldn’t put a chicken processing plant there. You wouldn’t put a casino on those lots.” He called these examples “extreme,” but mentioned them to emphasize that the eventual concept must “balance design with the neighborhood its going in.”
Roberge said that any design must also take into account that fire and rescue vehicles must have easy access and egress to the structures located on these properties.
Abutter Cathy Ernst asked about possible noise in the neighborhood if the new buildings were built and occupied. “What kind of buffer do I have?” she asked.
Roberge said that appropriate screening for new buildings — natural or manmade noise abatement structures — would have to be considered, as well as ensuring that proper setbacks are unified throughout the proposed district. Roberge also noted that 50 percent of the Faulkner property is preserved, which would limit the amount of construction that can be built there.
Speaking of the public/private partnership that may have to be forged to see the project’s ultimate reality, Roberge noted that public housing needs to be supervised. “Who manages that? We’re not in the business of managing homes. The Housing Board does not manage apartments,” he said. “But we’re going to get to the point where we’re going to have to be very creative.”
Roberge said he could not think of any at this point. Roberge was also asked about its impact on property values in the area.
“I don’t see that this would have any significant impact, but I haven’t done an economic analysis,” Roberge said.
Comings asked if any development in the area could impact the area where life flights land. “I want to make sure this doesn’t interfere with medical emergencies,” said Comings.
“That’s a good point,” said Roberge, who said that access to that site would not change. “Conceptually, I like the idea of a community zone,” said Town Councilor Martha Ball, who was in attendance, but she cautioned that such an expansive project can get bogged down. “It can become so detailed, so onerous, because of this person’s agenda, that person’s agenda,” she said, “and then nothing gets done.”