Pushback on proposed Community Zone

Thu, 01/24/2019 - 6:45pm
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The Town Council is learning that amending the town’s zoning ordinance to create a Community Services Zoning District for developing town facilities could be more complicated than when first conceived. Abutters to the proposed governmental zone, or district, claim that amendments to the ordinance could have a variety of negative impacts on neighboring properties.

Council members heard arguments during a public hearing to amend the proposed ordinance to include the new district at the council’s Jan. 16 meeting. The proposed district would consist of four existing properties: the Thomas and Faulkner properties, as well as the Block Island School and the Medical Center campuses.

The draft ordinance, recommended to the Town Council by the Planning Board, states in section 320 that the intent of the new district would be “to provide locations for necessary government facilities or services, including, but not limited to, schools, medical facilities, recreation, and housing for municipal employees.” The council’s agenda noted that it would replace the Public Education Zone and the Medical Center Zone, and encompass other properties at Payne Road, High Street and Pilot Hill Road.

The problem is the ordinance includes changes to dimensions, setbacks, and other use restrictions that could conceivably impact abutting properties, and existing town facilities, such as the school. The draft of the proposed ordinance can be found in the Town Council’s agenda on the town’s website.

School Committee Chair Bill Padien said if the ordinance is approved with the proposed minimum setbacks and building heights, portions of the educational zone would be affected. “I have concerns,” he said, noting that “the minimum setbacks requirements have changed drastically.”

Padien said, as an example, the school’s front setback is currently 10 feet, but under the proposed ordinance it would be 25 feet. “The rear is five feet from the school zone right now,” he said, “and the new proposal says the setback would be 40 feet.”

“So you’re concerned about the implications of the amended ordinance with regard to those setbacks?” asked First Warden Ken Lacoste.

“Yes, on the school’s property,” said Padien.

Pete Tweedy, speaking on behalf of the Medical Center, had concerns that the language didn’t include housing for Medical Center personnel. He said under section D of permitted uses, single-family and attached multi-family dwellings are to be “occupied by personnel serving local government functions.”

“The Medical Center is going to have to have housing,” said Tweedy. “I just don’t want there to be some confusion down the road in terms of who can build housing, and who can live in housing.”

Lacoste asked Town Planner/GIS Specialist Alison Ring why the wording in the draft ordinance did not include the Medical Center. Ring said, “The intent, of course, was to include medical personnel, so we can reword it.”

Councilor Martha Ball said the ordinance proposes a minimum lot area of 120,000 square feet, but three of the four lots are smaller than that in square footage. “It looks like you’re creating non-conforming lots,” she said. “Can anybody address that?”

Ring said a lot of the language the Planning Board used in the draft “comes from the existing Medical Center Zone, and that’s the current dimensional standard for that lot’s size.”

Councilor Sven Risom said the council should review the square footage minimum before revising the draft and holding public hearings to consider approving the ordinance.

Attorney Erik Wallin, representing abutters James and Wendy Ernst, who have lived on their Payne Road property for 50 years, said the proposed zone “snuck up” on his clients, and they have concerns “it will cause an unbearable increase in traffic and disruption to the neighborhood.” Wallin said his clients would prefer that the town endeavor to build town facilities utilizing a special use permit.

Bobbie Reynolds, an abutter who lives on High Street, said that learning through a letter that her neighborhood was going to be turned into a new Community Services Zone was “really scary.” She said, “I hope this can be resolved. I’ve lived there 40 years. It really isn’t right.”

After hearing from the abutters, Second Warden André Boudreau asked what seemed to be on some people’s minds: “Is this all necessary? Is the whole thing necessary? Or can the town do these (capital) projects with a special use permit?”

“I can answer, but it would be long-winded,” said Town Manager Ed Roberge, who has been spearheading the Town Employee Housing Initiative on the Thomas Property and the creation of the new zoning district.

“Let’s hear it,” said abutter Charlie Weber from the back row of the chamber. Weber lives on Payne Road.

Roberge said it was time for the town to start using town-owned properties for its governmental purposes. He also said he was trying to be “respectful” to the abutters’ concerns, and that capital projects in the district would need to be voter-authorized at a financial town meeting. 

“My opinion is that this tries to address the appropriate land use for parcels that the town has invested in,” said Roberge, noting that a community zone is necessary to facilitate development of projects on town-owned properties. “It allows for maximum flexibility to serve the town’s needs.” 

“It seems like this needs a lot of work,” said Lacoste. “What do you want to do?” he asked his fellow council members.

Risom made a motion, seconded by Ball, to send the draft back to the Planning Board for revision, and hold another round of public hearings before voting on the ordinance. The council voted unanimously (4-0) to do just that. Councilor Chris Willi, who is an abutter, was recused. 

Dune protection

In other news, the council voted unanimously (5-0) to impose a fine of up to $50 for each violation of the town’s new dune protection ordinance. Risom made the motion that was seconded by Boudreau. The ordinance notes that it is unlawful to enter or traverse over any dune on public property, or destroy, move, or alter any vegetation or dune protection measures, such as fencing, etc. 

The next Town Council meeting is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m.