Council considers more affordable housing

Fri, 05/28/2021 - 8:30am

The Town Council met with the Block Island Housing Board on Tuesday, May 18, to examine a proposal by Jill Stern, representing High View Glen, Inc., and Joan Grossman. The proposal is to donate three lots off of Highview Lane to the town for affordable housing in exchange for an easement across the Thomas property, Plat 8, Lot 218. Stern, whose family has owned the property known as the Highview Glen Subdivision since the 1960’s, presented her case with an emphasis on the attractive features of the property for affordable housing, including location near the school, proximity to town, and access to town water and sewer. The property is divided into sixteen lots, but only seven are suitable for development, as the majority of the eight-acre parcel was designated wetland after the subdivision into lots had taken place, according to Stern.

Stern presented three options for development of the property: giving three lots to the town for affordable housing in exchange for
the easement across Lot 218 to build a road; selling all seven usable lots to the town at below market value so the town can develop it however they wish; or proceeding with private development. Stern said they had been trying unsuccessfully for twenty years to make the property available to the town as affordable housing. According to the current proposal submitted to the town, the first affordable housing proposal was submitted to then-Town Manager Nancy Dodge in 2012, although The Nature Conservancy was approached as early as 1999 about buying the property. Also noted in the proposal’s timeline were attempts to negotiate with the neighboring property owners to gain access and a failed attempt to buy a property on High Street for access.

Stern said the town would have better success than she has had in attempting to gain access to the usable lots, as she has not been able to negotiate a path through any of the adjoining neighbors’ properties. The lots were subdivided in 1969, prior to the 1971 wetlands designations, and the original, undeveloped, platted roadway would pass through a significant amount of wetland area. As such, Stern says they have been trying for many years to come up with a way to build a road to the usable lots that will have minimal wetland disturbance. She mentioned that if the town owned the entire property, they could utilize tools unavailable to her as a private citizen, such as eminent domain, in order to build the road through the neighbors’ properties.

Scott Rabideau of Natural Resource Services, Inc., an expert on wetlands based in Rhode Island, joined the meeting to explain that the Department of Environmental Management requirements for any alteration to freshwater wetlands are extremely strenuous. Rabideau says part of the process obliges the applicant to seek out all other alternatives for less environmental impact, and that part of the purpose of this entire proposal is to fulfill that obligation on the part of Ms. Stern. He mentioned that DEM will not prevent people from reasonable use of their property, and his goal is to show DEM that they tried to find alternative routes.

To that end, the proposal had several other alternatives for roadways besides the easement through the town-owned Thomas Property. According to Chris Willi, who called in with questions and concerns as president of the Pilot Hill Homeowner’s Association, the route through the Thomas Property would be approximately five feet from Town Manager Maryanne Crawford’s house. The other proposed roadways included one off Ambrose Lane and one off Pilot Hill Road, both of which pass through land owned by the Pilot Hill Homeowner’s Association.
Housing Board Chair Cindy Pappas weighed in, stating that while they are always interested and excited about the prospect of
new property for affordable housing, they are concerned about the environmental impact and infrastructure costs to access the lots.

Council Member Martha Ball said other alternatives need to be explored, and while there are interesting possibilities and alternatives that have less impact on the environment, Ball said Stern still needs to talk and negotiate with the other property owners including the homeowner’s associations.

Council Member Mark Emmanuelle echoed this sentiment when he said it is just common courtesy to inform the abutting neighbors of a proposal like this.
Stern said she had not been planning on talking to the homeowner’s association or other neighbors, and that if the town is interested then they can talk about what makes sense from a development standpoint.
First Warden Andre Boudreau asked if the road through the Thomas property would affect the town’s other plans for the property. Crawford said she would speak to the architect the town is using about Stern’s proposal and report back to the council. Boudreau said that in the interest of not wasting anyone’s time or dragging things out, the council should look at this again with Crawford’s input at their council meeting in early June.