Pushback to zoning change for hotel
There appeared to be pushback from the public and the Planning Board at its meeting on Nov. 13 regarding Lark Hotels’ interest in amending the Old Harbor commercial zoning ordinance to serve the developer’s plans for expanding and refurbishing its Gables Inn property. Lark Hotels purchased the Gables Inn and The Surf Hotel earlier this year with the goal of developing them as one resort called the Block Island Beach House.
Lark Hotels intends to convert the old, historic Gables Inn on Dodge Street into a hotel property called “The Grove,” replete with a pool and four poolside cottages, or accessory hotel rooms, which is not a permitted use under current zoning laws. The developer’s proposed amendments would provide additional special use standards for hotels and inns in the Old Harbor commercial zone, and create “accessory hotel room” as a new use allowed by a special use permit accessory to a hotel in the zone. The proposed amendment would allow hotels and hotels with accessory hotel rooms on parcels of 20,000 square feet or more.
The problem with approving the proposed amended ordinance is it could lead to “unintended consequences” and “significant changes” in the commercial zone, said Chair Margie Comings. That means future developers could take advantage of the changes to the ordinance, building or expanding hotel properties with accessory hotel room structures in the Old Harbor zone. The Planning Board is charged with providing an advisory or recommendation concerning the proposed amendments to the Town Council.
The Planning Board, cautious about amending the ordinance at its previous special meeting on Oct. 30, seemed to be apprehensive about voting in favor of sending a favorable advisory to the Town Council during the meeting. The attorney for Lark Hotels, Joe Priestley, was persuasive, however, in getting the Planning Board to continue hearing the matter at its December 11 meeting.
“I’m inclined to vote no right this minute,” said Comings, who agreed to put Lark Hotels’ request on the board’s next agenda. “I can’t say I would always feel this way. I feel that there are too many unknown factors, and too many unintended consequences come out of changing zones. That’s just my opinion.”
Board member Tony Pappas said he was “undecided” about the proposed ordinance amendment, and needed “more information.”
“I would like more time” to study the information, including the plat maps, said board member Mary Anderson.
“I haven’t heard anything compelling” to influence my thoughts on it, said Sam Bird, who sits on the board, and is also the town’s Facilities Manager. “For me, in order to change the zoning ordinance, it’s not about what an individual entity wants to do, or needs to do, or feels they can or should do. It’s about whether or not the change is beneficial to the island as a whole. And I’m not there. If it isn’t broke, why fix it?”
“The zoning ordinance says that hotels are permitted by special use permit in the Old Harbor commercial zone in one section,” said Priestley, while “the next says, ‘Oops! No you can’t do it; we don’t allow it.’” He added; “I think if I were a member of the board that I would want to fix that. I would want the ordinance to either say, ‘No, we don’t allow hotels in the Old Harbor commercial district, or we allow them in some usable way.’”
Priestley was referring to sections 407 (hotels) and 408 (inns) in the Town of New Shoreham’s zoning ordinance. Section 407 of the ordinance stipulates that dimensional standards for new construction of hotels on minimal developable land is up to 80,000 square feet, while the standard in section 408 for inns in existing and new structures is up to 20,000 square feet.
Board member Socha Cohen asked the million dollar question: “Do we want more hotels” in the Old Harbor commercial zone?
Priestley said he didn’t think the ordinance would be used to add more hotels, although he didn’t rule it out either. He urged the board to continue the hearing to its next meeting. “As for providing more information to the board, he said, “I don’t see how you’re going to get any more information than you have.”
“Can you outline it for me, because I guess I’m a little confused, as to what you feel is the inconsistency that is in the” zoning ordinance, asked Bird.
Priestley said hotels and inns cannot be constructed in the Old Harbor commercial zone because there are not any available lots that would permit the use under current zoning laws. He referenced, for instance, property at the corner of Spring Street and High Street as an applicable property that could be developed. (Plat 7 lot 26 is owned by The Hotel Manisses.)
“Okay, I see what you’re saying,” said Bird.
“He would put a hotel there immediately,” said resident Kristin Baumann, referencing Priestley’s client, Rich Cooper, a developer for Lark Hotels. “He’s waiting on things like this.”
“That’s the one lot where a hotel could be built,” said Priestley.
“I urge you to take it slow,” said Baumann, appealing to the board. “I’m a resident of High Street. I live in this district. I work in this district. As a town employee, I attend many town meetings. Traffic is a problem. Our water is heavily taxed. Our sewer is falling apart. We do not need more hotels.”
Baumann noted that the advisory for the proposed amendments involves what is permitted in the zone. “It’s a whole ordinance. So, please be clear on that. It is about a whole ordinance being changed in the zoning regulations.”
As for the impact to the zone, Baumann said, “We have a zoning law to protect those things. That’s why we have zoning. That’s why the language was written. I don’t think you should sell your souls because someone comes in and is telling us what we need to do. We’ve been here long enough to know better.”
“Our job is to look at both sides of an issue,” replied Comings.
The next Planning Board meeting is Wednesday, Dec. 11 at 4 p.m.