Conservation groups weigh in on proposed zoning amendment

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 8:45pm

The following was issued by the Block Island Land Trust, Block Island Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy and presented to the members of the Town Council and Planning Board:

At the Planning Board meeting on Jan. 8, 2020, the suggestion was made to create a “white paper” outlining the difference between the current treatment of conservation easements in the zoning ordinances versus the amendment we proposed on Dec. 30, 2019.

The methodology we used to determine the development impact is as follows:

We examined all easements held by the three conservation groups and eliminated from the analysis those easements that specifically restricted use of the conservation area for development calculations; easements where another conservation organization owned the fee interest in the property; and easements that are on properties that would not be able to be further developed due to lot size, proximity to wetlands, etc. We believe this is a conservative analysis of the potential for additional development. The result, as we have previously described, is the potential for at least 50 houses, which would be sited in areas that are considered important viewsheds or of ecological importance.

Block Island has long been a leader in conserving open space, both in Rhode Island and nationally. The conservation groups feel strongly that this amendment is necessary at this time in order to protect the open space we have already conserved and to ensure that we can successfully continue to advance the conservation priorities of this community, as reflected in the Comprehensive Plan. Our proposed language would respect the original intent of conservation easements while protecting the ability of land-owners to specify whether land could be used for development in future easements.

Proposed amendment to the treatment of conservation easements

Block Island’s conservation organizations, (BIC, BILT, TNC) have filed a proposed amendment to the treatment of conservation easements in both the Planning Board regulations and the Zoning Board ordinances. The amendment recommends that land subject to conservation easements be excluded from the developable land calculation unless the Grantor specifically reserves the development rights. This amendment would accomplish the following:

Aligns the language across the ordinances as recommended by the Town’s attorney.

Provides flexibility for future conservation easements.

Protects the original intent of existing conservation easements.

Remains consistent with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan.

New Shoreham would continue to be a leader among conservation minded.

Current Zoning Ordinance

Allows conservation easements to be included in developable land.

Impact without Amendment Adoption

Would allow unintended bonus development resulting in more than 50 houses abutting existing conservation easements.

Conflicts with the Town’s Comprehensive Plan as the unintended development of these areas would impact identified viewsheds and areas of ecological importance.

Would allow the owner to use development rights they no longer own.

Conflicts with tax treatment of conservation easements.

Proposed Zoning Ordinance

Conservation easements would be excluded from developable land, unless the Grantor of the conservation easement specifically reserves the right to include the land in the calculation of development density.

Impact with Amendment Adoption

Protects the original intent of the conservation easement that was purchased or donated. No new development unless specified in the easement.

Aligns with the Comprehensive Plan by continuing to protect viewsheds and areas of ecological importance.

Protects the existing land rights of conservation easement holders.

Aligns easement value with IRS and property tax definitions.


The Conservation Organizations are proposing this amendment to provide flexibility and options as landowners look to conserve land.

This change would allow the landowner at the time the conservation easement is created to determine whether the land could be used or excluded from possible future development and would protect 48 years of existing conservation efforts.