Planning Board holds public hearing on modification to subdivision

Thu, 12/31/2020 - 6:15pm
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During the Wednesday, Dec. 9 Planning Board meeting, Attorney Erik Wallin was present for a public hearing on an application for a Preliminary Plan Review for a modification to the original subdivision on Plat 9, Lot 58-2 on Mohegan Trail. Wallin had previously presented the application to the Planning Board on Thursday, Sept. 17, and was asked to come back at a later date due to the proposed changes of the subdivision being a major impact to the surrounding neighborhood, and the continued discussion in seeking clarity in what a ‘building envelope’ is defined as, versus a ‘proposed dwelling’ in the declaration.

“I’m representing Rod and Alex Mitchell, [but] the owner of the property is still Bill Merkler. We found an inconsistency between the declaration with restriction and the approved subdivision plan. The declaration requires that any structure on any lot has to be built within the building envelope,” said Merkler.

In a letter sent to the Land Use office dated Tuesday, Sept. 29, Wallin wrote the following:

“This subdivision was previously approved by the Planning Board on May 12, 2018. The subject lot (as approved) shows a building envelope or proposed footprint of 75 feet by 35 feet. We are asking for approval of a modified building envelope to allow construction of a dwelling relocated as shown, with proposed decks which would extend beyond the dimension of footprint shown on the subdivision map.”

The consensus of the board at the last meeting had been that the proposed changes to the subdivision would have a major impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

“When my clients looked at the property, what we wanted to do was design something for that lot that was appropriate for the view and the property to be used. It is a fairly large house, and it fills that 35-foot by 75-foot footprint. But beyond that, they have some decks they want to put in, stairs, and a pool. When we looked at the approved plan, we realized that there is no building envelope there, only the proposed building. We are asking for a minor change… I’m in front to talk about just getting a simple building envelope that is accurate to what we are proposing, that is the change we are asking for,” said Wallin.

“What I want to point out, and what is frustrating as owners of the property, is that the site plan says proposed dwelling. It doesn’t say building envelope... It is not defined on this approved subdivision plan that it isn’t just a footprint of a house – it says structure. The declaration uses both building and structure,” said Wallin. In summary, Wallin stated the change he was seeking in the application was “to look at the proposed site plan and the structures on that [site plan], in accordance with the declaration, and make the proposed structures on those plan, the building envelope.”

“What my folks wanted to do was orientate the house at an angle [with a view to the ocean].… That’s why we are asking – even if you want to interpret proposed dwelling as a building envelope – for a change and clarity on what a building envelope is,” said Wallin.

Member Sam Bird jumped into the conversation and listed three major concerns and points of interest with the application.

“The building that is being proposed seems to overhang the limits of the building envelope; the building envelope is being moved; and the house next door is similar,” stated Bird.

“It looks like the house is pretty much the size of the building envelope shown – it’s actually larger. I think you have two issues: one is the building envelope – is that capable of being relocated or rotated, and the other question is what has to stay within the four corners of that building envelope, or can the size be adjusted? We have another lot next door with a similar house – are we going to go through the same process again?” said Bird.

Abutters to the property shared similar thoughts on the size of the proposed dwelling. Some of the abutters had previously sent in letters to the Planning Board stating their opposition to the application.

“This has been a long process. After four years with the Merklers to develop this site in a positive way and to maintain the character of Block Island, they were supported by the neighbors to purchase the property and subdivide… it was our understanding that it was being done as a future family compound,” said abutter Catherine Wohlberg. “I am not inclined to support in taking this, and distorting the Comprehensive Plan.”

“We are looking at an expanded house. In addition, a pool and a deck. A substantial increase over what was approved. This building if approved would stretch the subdevelopment… I do approve and support the reorientation [of the proposed dwelling], I do not support a larger plan of construction. I think we need to return to the original plan for the subdevelopment, reorientate the house, and look at reorienting the angle,” said abutter John Ellis.

“[The plan] is in order to build the biggest possible house on that property and a pool. The ridiculousness of a pool on an island… I don’t really oppose the orientation of the house, but I do oppose the continued overdevelopment of the island.” said abutter Philip Murphy. “The things that made [the island] attractive in the first place are disappearing.”

“The character of the island is changing… I just would say, I hope that the size of the house would be limited and kept to what is already stated,” added abutter Martha Velie-Gass.

Applicant Bill Merkler responded with his own statement defending the application, noting that the application has undergone a two-to three-year battle, with “lots of trips to Block Island.”

“I think that Shannon and I have demonstrated that we are great stewards of the land and Block Island… we have demonstrated we are willing to work with the Planning and Zoning Boards,” said Merkler, noting he had previously donated some land to the Block Island Conservancy.

“I would echo Mr. Merkler’s comments based on my own recollection that the Merklers made great stride and efforts to be good stewards in the design and cooperative undertaking,” said Planning Board attorney Bill Landry.

But Landry noted that “there needs to be some statement about what the [building envelope] is intended to contain.”

The board decided to continue the public hearing to January 2021.

Comings encouraged Wallin to “make sure your client [Bill Merkler] understands the concerns expressed tonight. If he comes back with a large structure there will be problems… [he needs to] prioritize the things he wants in that envelope.”