Planning Board tackles amending ordinances

Fri, 05/13/2022 - 11:00am

The Planning Board also took up the subject of affordable and attainable housing at its meeting on Monday, May 9. As opposed to the workshop the Town Council
held, this meeting mainly focused on specific language housing advocate Chris Warfel had proposed to amend section 513 of the zoning regulations concerning accessory apartments for year-round residents.
At the outset of the meeting though, Warfel said he had gotten some things wrong – “unintended” mistakes.
Town Planner Alison Ring, who had prepared a memo on the draft language had picked up on the problem already, writing that “by eliminating the distinction between affordable accessory apartments, and accessory apartments, the draft revisions seem to intend that all residential 513s created would be deed-restricted [i.e. affordable]
and for occupancy only for income eligible year-round residents.” In introducing her memo, Ring noted that the Planning Board had already been working on amending the 513 section and that some of the ideas overlapped.
Most of the amended language proposed by Warfel entailed substituting the phrase “attainable/affordable housing” for “accessory apartment.” He agreed that the two types of housing would need to treated separately in the regulations. “There was a fundamental error in the way I approached it,” he said.
Currently, with the language of the ordinance addressing “accessory apartments,” there is no inference that an apartment is either “affordable” and therefore deed restricted, or “attainable.” “I did not mean to take that away,” said Warfel.
Although there are provisions for affordable housing within section 513, which grant the homeowner a tax break, no one has ever actually taken advantage of them. Affordable housing is also addressed separately in section 405 of the zoning regulations.
Still, suggestions for changing the language did echo those expressed at the Town Council’s workshop, including increasing the number of bedrooms allowed to three instead of two, and allowing for more than 1,200 square feet of living space. Planning Board Member Gail Ballard Hall felt that people who already have a residential accessory structure, which does not allow for a kitchen, might be willing to turn it into a 513 accessory apartment but wouldn’t be able to do so if it were more than 1,200 square feet.
The problem of people wanting to perhaps add an accessory apartment but could not because their allowable lot coverage was exhausted was also discussed. One idea was that perhaps an extra percent of lot coverage could be granted to allow for one. Another idea was to allow for two accessory apartments on a lot, for a total of three dwelling units.
Planning Board Chair Margie Comings played the devil’s advocate throughout. She pointed out that things like allowing extra lot coverage and third dwellings might go against the expectation of neighbors, and that there were “two sides” to everything.
Ring, in her memo, suggested that some of the variations discussed might be made allowable by special use permit rather than “by right.”
“We have some quirky properties,” said Comings, also advocating for special use permits as a tool. “We have to have checks and balances.”
“The beauty of 513 is it created 50 units,” said Housing Board Chair Cindy Pappas from the audience. “Find new ways to make it attractive.”
“Make a couple of tweaks and do a blitz in the newspaper,” suggested resident Doug Michel.
Comings asked Ring to “work on a list of things to tweak on the 513,” that the Planning Board could look at in the next couple of months, when they would “tweak
the tweaks.”
For his part, Warfel agreed to withdraw his amendments as written and focus instead on writing separate amendments solely addressing affordable housing.
The Planning Board then pivoted to addressing the question of house size, a subject that also resulted in a robust conversation with no real solutions. There were over 200 responses to their recent survey on large houses, and Ring said that 70 percent of the respondents did support regulating the size of houses.
One problem with the survey is that just who responded is unknown, but what is known is the growing trend of island properties being purchased for millions of dollars and then being torn down to build large houses – or houses that may just appear to be large because of the size of the lot they are on.
While there are already guidelines and restrictions in the zoning ordinances regarding percentage-of-lot coverage, square footage, and building heights, exceptions can be
made through variances with the consent of the Planning and Zoning Boards.
But still, some want as big a house as they can get. Comings said “People will push and push. It’s more than just lot size.”
Mark Emmanuelle, from the audience offered his home as an example. He owns a Berger cottage, which has a single floor, and while he would like to expand the house, because of lot coverage, he can only go up, not out, and he does not want a second floor.
Ballard Hall echoed the concern, saying there were people, particularly in windy areas who might want a larger footprint with a low-level house. “Absolutes can be very
problematic,” she said, adding later that the size and contours of a home are often determined by “the lay of the land.”
In a packet prepared by Ring for the meeting, she included some examples of things other towns were doing to rein in house sizes. One community represented was Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, where there is a maximum house size of 3,500 square feet on a three-acre lot, but 250 additional square feet is allowed for each “contiguous acre,” and 250 fewer square feet are allowed per acre if the lot is smaller.
Regarding Chilmark, Comings said: “I would love to explore that. I want to keep the unique character of Block Island.”
“Tearing down older homes and building new ones that don’t look the same is the greatest problem on Block Island,” said Ballard Hall. “Architecture is the important factor here.”
“Isn’t that like expanding the Historic District?” asked Planning Board member Chris Willi, adding he was not in favor of that.
“Years from now there’s going to have to be a history of Block Island on the coffee table, because Block Island won’t be here,” said Ballard Hall.