Council sets public hearings on a variety of proposals

Thu, 03/05/2020 - 7:45pm
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With recent discussions pertaining to the presence of the coronavirus in Rhode Island, First Warden Ken Lacoste said he had met with the Medical Center on Monday, March 2. “We got together and brought everyone up to speed on the coronavirus.” The Town Council listened to Lacoste’s Warden’s Report on Monday, March 2.

Town Manager Jim Kern jumped into the conversation and added he had “conversations over the last three to four days. We want the people in town to know we are in constant contact. It’s the same information as you are watching the news and hearing from the Rhode Island Department of Health. There are a couple presumptive cases. But the biggest message is, instead of concentrating on the unknowns of the virus, we can focus on what we know and that viruses spread. Wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face, and practice health precautions and good hygiene.”

Lacoste added, “The Medical Center will be providing information and will keep everyone as informed as possible.” The Medical Center issued a statement on Monday, March 2, that stated the facility’s staff was working with the Rhode Island Department of Health and cautioned residents to take normal precautions — washing hands, stay home if you feel ill, and to get a flu shot if you have not done so — to prevent the spread of the virus and the flu.

Communication with RIAC

Kern addressed on-going discussions with Rhode Island Airport Corporation about long-standing issues and opportunities at the Block Island State Airport. In an email addressed to Kern from John Goodman, Director of Media and Public Relations for RIAC, dated on Feb. 20, Goodman wrote: “Over the last two years the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) has heard a clear message from towns and community stakeholders who would like Block Island and Westerly State Airports to remain open to perform its public purposes, thrive, and operate in a safe manner. In this regard, as you are aware, we have run into a significant barrier at Westerly and Newport Airports. As the trees continue to grow, they are putting pilots’ safety in danger by posing obstructions in their flying path. To mitigate this risk, we will have to cut these trees to return the air space to its original condition so that the pilots can approach the runway in a safe manner using the whole length of the runway... RIAC is seeking the support of elected officials and other community stakeholders for the proposed ‘Preservation of Safe Airspace’ legislation, which will improve airspace protection coordination among local, state and federal jurisdictions for publicly owned airports in the state... RIAC is seeking letters of support from local governments, elected officials and other community stakeholders who seek to maintain safe, full-length runways, and obstruction free airspace surrounding publicly owned airports in the state.”

Kern said that having on-going “support from” the town, as well as a letter from the council supporting the legislation would be “very much appreciated”

Lacoste made a motion to “authorize the Town Manger to send a letter of support to RIAC, relative to the maintenance of the airport.”

Car and pedestrian traffic

Councilor Sven Risom updated the council on possible ideas for improving the Visitor Center experience for island guests, and to also reduce car and pedestrian traffic in Old Harbor.

Risom said that Kern has been meeting with the two companies that own the Visitor Center building and the land that it sits on. In downtown Old Harbor, car and pedestrian traffic has become congested over the years. Risom said he would recommend closing down Chapel Street between Water Street and Weldon’s Way during the summer. He suggested placing temporary planters and barriers at the mouth of Chapel Street to stop the flow of traffic, and to also create public rest areas in that location.

“I just want to continue this conversation, and if and how we want to move it forward,” Risom said. He added that the idea could be tested. “I would love to test this and have a discussion on what people think,” said Risom.

“We do need to have a public discussion about doing this,” said Lacoste. “Get (Highways Supervisor) Mike Shea in the room, [Police Chief Vin Carlone] in the room, get everyone in the room and all the best interests in the room, and see if they have any ideas concerning it,” said Lacoste.

“I can work with Jim and come up with a plan over the next three weeks. I don’t want to start doing sketches and physical plans until everyone is positive. We will pursue it if you are good with it,” said Risom. He suggested a public hearing could be held in April.

“I think you should pursue it,” said Second Warden André Boudreau. 

Special FTM approved

Lacoste motioned to approve the warrant for a special Financial Town Meeting on March 23, 2020 for a new $2.3 million water main project running from Payne Road down High Street. The Water Company is seeking a federal loan to offset more than $1 million of the cost, and the Council also previously approved sharing 25 percent of the cost with all town residents due to the fact that the water main services the downtown area and benefits the entire community. That project will be the only item on the March 23 warrant.

Reviving the Boston Post Cane

The council mulled over reviving the tradition of giving the Boston Post Cane to the island’s oldest resident. 

Council members spent a little while discussing just who is currently the oldest citizen is on the island, and what the criteria is for receiving it.

Councilor Martha Ball said the cane has been given “to someone who was in residence. It’s been given to people who live here year round.”

There were two ideas: passing the cane along, or displaying it in a public place for all to see.

“I like the idea of keeping this tradition” of passing it along, said Risom.

No one is currently holding the cane. The tradition was started in 1909 by the Boston Post newspaper.

In other news, the council set a date for a public hearing on a proposed amendment that will change the town’s ordinance on the definition of developable land.

The Town Council, on the recommendation of the Planning Board, approved the language change so that it could go to a public hearing. The proposed changes had been recommended by The Block Island Land Trust, Block Island Conservancy, and The Nature Conservancy.

A memo addressed to Town Council from the Planning Board stated, “The Block Island Conservancy, the Block Island Land Trust, and The Nature Conservancy have proposed amending the definition of developable land within the Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision Regulations to ensure that land held under conservation easements are excluded in the calculation of development density (unless those rights have been specifically enumerated and reserved).”

The updated definition reads: “All land area of land subject to a Conservation Easement, unless the Grantor in the Conservation Easement specifically reserves the right to include the land subject to the Conservation Easement in the calculation of development density.”

A public hearing date for amending the definition of “Developable Land” is set for Monday, March 30 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

Accessory hotel rooms

Lark Hotels attorney Joe Priestley was present for the meeting on behalf of the owners of the Surf Hotel and the proposed development called the Grove — which is the former Gables Inn on Dodge Street. The hotel owners have proposed new language for the town’s zoning ordinance that would allow what are called accessory hotel rooms at the Grove location, which is in the town’s Historic District. The proposed change was sent to the Council by the Planning Board, which neither approved nor rejected the proposed changes because the vote ended in a 3-3 tie.

“We are prepared to go forward, and I’m just here in case,” said Priestley to the council.

The council set a public hearing date for the application for Monday, March 30 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.

Building height and flood ordinance

In a memo sent to Lacoste from Planning Board Chair Margie Comings, “During the 2018 Rhode Island Legislative Session, a bill was enacted (effective March 1, 2019) that amended the definition of building height within the Zoning Enabling Act... This amended definition allows for greater building height within Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs). Within SFHAs, building height must no longer be measured from average existing grade, but from Base Flood Elevation (BFE) or BFE plus freeboard. As you recall, the Town amended our local definition of building height in 2018 to address the state legislative change to the building height definition at that time which excluded up to 5 feet of freeboard from the calculation of building height.”

“The goal is to set a public hearing date, unless we feel it is not ready to be sent to hearing,” said Lacoste.

“I think it should be,” said Councilor Sven Risom.

Lacoste made a motion to set a public hearing date. Town Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick said the next public hearing date will be set for Monday, March 30.

Comings also sent a memo to the council addressing the proposed amendment to the zoning ordinance.

Lacoste made a motion to set a public hearing date for Monday, March 30 for this amendment as well. 

The next Town Council meeting will be held Wednesday, March 11 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.