New laws to stop mega houses

Tue, 02/12/2008 - 6:00am
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A sliding scale that would restrict the owners of large lots to much smaller homes than they are now allowed appears on track to win approval from the Planning Board.

Lower height restrictions for new buildings, especially those near the coastline and surrounding popular open-space areas, would also be included in the changes to the New Shoreham zoning code.

Under a draft version of the amendments, which won’t become law until the Town Council holds a public hearing on them this spring, the owners of four-plus acre lots in the island’s rural RA Zone would be allowed to cover no more than 1.5 percent of their lots with buildings. They would be allowed a little more — 2 percent — if they agreed to restrict their home’s height. As lots get smaller, they would be allowed to have a proportionally higher percentage of building coverage, up to 5 percent for low houses on lots that are two acres or smaller.

Depending on where lots fall on the scale, the changes would mean owners would be allowed a building footprint half as large as what they can get now. Under existing zoning laws, RA lots, no matter how big, are allowed a building coverage of 4 percent.

The revisions to the existing zoning code would also mandate a three-foot drop in the maximum height of new construction in the RA and RB Zones, from 35 feet to 32 feet.

Town Planner Jane Weidman has been working with the Planning Board on the amendments for months after the Town Council charged planning officials with finding a way to ward off the huge vacation homes that a recent National Geographic survey found have tarnished the look and feel of neighboring resort islands. Weidman presented the draft document to the Planning Board at a special meeting held Tuesday, February 4. The board expects to meet at least once more, on March 12, before forwarding it to the Town Council.

The zoning amendment, if approved this spring, would dramatically curb the potential for creating mega-homes on the largest lots remaining on the island. For instance, the owner of a five-acre lot is currently allowed a building footprint of 8,700 square feet and a maximum building height of 35 feet. That would drop to 3,260 square feet for a home up to 32 feet, and 4,350 square feet for a house no higher than 28 feet.

Any home larger than 4,500 square feet would be required to go through a lengthy zoning process to get a Special Use Permit, in which multiple town boards would get a chance to weigh in on architectural plans, accessory structures and retaining walls, the natural contours of the land and where the house would sit in relation to ridgelines.

A further innovation of Weidman’s would be the creation of special “zoning overlays” around the coast and popular open-space areas. The new Coastal Overlay would extend 200 feet in from the state’s existing 200-foot “Coastal Zone,” for a total of 400 feet around the circumference of the island. The Open Space Overlay would create a 500-feet zone around the Hodge, Lewis-Dickens and Rodman’s Hollow conservation areas. Within them, building height and footprint would be restricted to 28 feet and no more than 2,500 square feet in area, says the draft document, to create residences that are “visually non-intrusive and in keeping with traditional development patterns on New Shoreham.”

The Planning Board commended Weidman for her work on the project and seemed to agree on many of the changes. But members seemed split on whether the board should recommend new laws for the RB Zone that would apply similar principles as those used for the changes in RA.

Board Chair Robbie Gilpin said he thought the board should take a close look at the more densely populated RB before restricting house size there, while Land Use Administrator Jen Brady Brown said she believes tougher standards in RB could conflict with the island’s Comprehensive Plan, which recommends concentrating development close to town, in the areas covered by RB and Service Commercial zones.

For the moment, the board agreed to a sliding scale for RB that starts at 8 percent, the existing lot coverage percentage, for the smallest lots. The number would drop as lots get larger; Weidman, who had originally proposed tougher restrictions, will come back March 12 with detailed recommendations for the new scale.

The series of meetings over the zoning amendments have created numerous discussions as the board tries to balance an unspoiled landscape against a vigorous construction industry, skyrocketing real estate prices against fairness to property owners, while remaining fair to the different types of people who want to build here.

What seems reasonable to require of a wealthy second-home owner looking to create a large complex for extended-family vacations, for instance — such as surveys for all lots, and restricting building coverage on smaller lots — could be burdensome to a year-round resident who may struggle to meet the cost of even modest construction.