Council revisiting land use amendments

Fri, 08/24/2018 - 9:15am

The New Shoreham Town Council is seeking the advice of its Land Use attorney to understand the implications of a recent amendment to a key definition in the Zoning Ordinance, before potentially voting on the matter all over again. The Planning Board had proposed, and the Council adopted, several amendments to the ordinance, supposedly to bring the ordinance into conformance with state law. Some Council members now feel the Planning Board misrepresented at least one of the amendments.

At the urging of Councilor Martha Ball, the Council voted unanimously  to revisit its March 5 approval of the Planning Board’s changes. As part of the approved motion, the Council directed the Planning Board to explain its rationale for proposing the changes to the ordinance.

Ball explained to The Times that the regulation “needs to be revisited and voted on by the Town Council. It needs to be properly advertised and placed on the agenda. If it’s about bringing the regulations into compliance with state law then that should be all that is presented to us. If the Planning Board wants to add something into the language then they should tell us about it.”

The amendments proposed by the Planning Board responded to state legislation enacted in 2016, one of which requires wetland buffer or setback areas, often part of open space or conserved land, to be included “in the calculation of a minimum lot area … before calculating the maximum potential number of units or lots for development” – that is, the amount of “developable land” – for any given parcel. 

The previous language noted that developable land is “land which is considered suitable for development, measured for the purposes of determining allowable density.” Developable land should exclude coastal features, as determined by the CRMC, and freshwater wetlands areas, as well as “all the land area within easements serving other lots, including but not limited to sewage disposal systems, or wells, but not including scenic and conservation easements, or easements for access.”

The Planning Board’s amended language, which the council approved March 5, states that developable land is “for the purpose of calculating the maximum permitted development density for a parcel, is the total gross land area of a parcel proposed for development less the total of the following: freshwater wetlands,” excluding “any setback requirement from the edge of a wetland; shoreline features, such as beaches, bluffs, coastal wetlands, and dunes,” as classified by the CRMC; easement areas serving other lots for sewage disposal systems or wells;” and “land area subject to existing conservation and open space easements.”   

 Much of the land held for conservation on Block Island is protected by easements held by the Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, and the Block Island Conservancy.

At its August 15 meeting, the Council spent an hour trying to comprehend the impact of the amended definition it approved, and how they might approach a reconsideration vote. Councilor Chris Willi said the state law created a “loophole” for property owners who might want to increase development density.

From the audience, Planning Board member Socha Cohen verbalized the frustration that everyone was feeling at the meeting, and tried to explain the issue. “We never did, nor do we want to in the future, have people take an existing conserved piece of property, and use it afterwards to increase their developable land,” she said.

Councilors wanted to know how many lots would be affected by the revised definition, but there was no answer available. Second Warden André Boudreau said repeatedly that he was “trying to figure out how many property owners this could effect. The reason why I want to know is because this could impact families.”

“I don’t know how many property owners this could impact,” replied Councilor Sven Risom, who also serves as Vice Chair of the Planning Board. “I don’t think it’s a lot. If there’s confusion, I think the Town Council should schedule a work session with the Planning Board, and the Land Use attorney, Don Packer, to work through this. We should make sure we get it right.” 

Risom suggested that all easements in the town’s land records would need to be reviewed to determine which parcels would be impacted by the new definition. Town Manager Ed Roberge said that task would be an “extensive research project” – “every deed” would need to be read. Town Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick concurred, saying it would take considerable research.

Roberge, citing the complexity of the issue, said the topic should be reviewed by a land use attorney.

The Town Council took no action on setting a public hearing date to discuss the topic, but intends to include it on a future meeting’s agenda. Fitzpatrick later told The Times that the Town Council will be meeting with the Town Solicitor to discuss the definition of developable land.

Packer retiring

The Town Council unanimously accepted the retirement of its land use solicitor, Don Packer, who has been working for the town for over 40 years. In his July 30 letter to the Council announcing that he will be retiring at year’s end, Packer said, “I leave having made many friends, and memories.”

After First Warden Ken Lacoste read Packer’s letter, Boudreau quipped, “That’s what he thinks,” which elicited laughter from the attendees. 

North Light 150th Anniversary

The North Light Commission announced at the meeting that it is hosting a 150th anniversary ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 15 from 6 p.m. to 7:40 p.m. at the Block Island School. The lighthouse went into service on Sept. 15, 1868. The commission is inviting the public to attend.