Lengthy zoning process is not a deterrent for some

Thu, 09/02/2021 - 2:15pm

“As a long-time islander and with respect for our hardworking officials and island environmental activists, I protest the application for a variance. I join all those dedicated to protect our land from inappropriate development by adhering to the law.”

So began the long and impassioned plea of Jane Emsbo at the Board of Zoning Review on August 25. Emsbo was protesting the application by BI Harborview Partners II, LLC, for Plat 4 Lot 29, the property abutting hers. The application is for a variance to demolish the existing kitchen and construct
a 28-foot by 40-foot addition. The kitchen in question is located in a 567-square-foot home built in 1868 on Corn Neck Road. The addition is 1,358 square feet.
While some members of the Zoning Board were glad the historic home was being added on to, rather than being torn down as is so often the case, Emsbo was not deterred from her opposition.

“In the past many, like this developer, have knowingly bought property to build a house or development clearly prohibited by our zoning laws. Buyers of these lands usually depend on eventually getting a variance. This is usually a very long and expensive process, but too often, successful,” Emsbo told the board.
It is indeed a long process, many times requiring the applicant appear before the Planning Board and the Conservation Commission, as well as the Historic District Commission if the property is located in the historic district. Applicants generally have architects, engineers, and lawyers in tow, who often make the arguments before these various boards and commissions.

This particular applicant had been approved for this project nearly a year ago, and at that time requested even more relief through variance. But then the applicant changed course, obtaining an administrative subdivision of his adjoining property, which provided more lot space and reduced the amount of relief needed. As this constituted a major change in the plans, the application before Zoning on August 25 was treated as a new application.
“Things are changing. Islanders have stated we may be at a tipping point in preserving appropriate land development. Therefore, citizens and government are diligently working to keep the zoning rules enforced and not moderated simply by lengthy legal dispute,” Emsbo continued. In the past year the Zoning Board has made 18 decisions, most of them favorable, granting variances and special use permits for numerous construction projects on Block Island that allow the projects to proceed in spite of violating one zoning rule or another.

Several members of the Zoning Board questioned the reasoning behind joining the little historic house to a large addition, rather than having two separate buildings.

“Did you ever think of leaving it as two separate buildings? Then you wouldn’t even have to be here,” Chair Kate Butcher said.
Richard Hayes, principal owner of the property, said that concerns about installing a separate septic system were one reason he wanted to join the two buildings. Member Bob Lamoureux quickly pointed out that installing a separate septic would not be necessary, whether the buildings were conjoined or not.

Although several board members acknowledged that aesthetics should not play a role in granting a variance, it was generally agreed upon that the project would look better with the buildings joined together.

“If you don’t connect them, it’s going to be like Darth Vader looking over the shoulder of the little (house),” Butcher said.

The board concluded its discussion with no members expressing any issues with the project, and Member Judith Cyronak agreeing to write up the decision for a vote at the next meeting.