Thomas Property project on hold

Due to appeal of Planning Board’s approval
Thu, 03/21/2019 - 7:15pm

An appeal filed by a Block Island resident has stalled the town’s voter-approved $1.5 million town employee housing project. Cathy Payne filed the appeal as an abutter, but she is not an abutter to the property.

“The project’s on hold,” said Town Manager Ed Roberge at the conclusion of Monday’s budget meeting when he provided the New Shoreham Town Council with an update on the project. Roberge said that Payne is appealing the Planning Board’s approval of the project. Roberge said the appeal could lead to costly delays, which may make the council possibly consider vacating the project altogether. The Thomas property, located across from the Block Island School, was chosen as the site for two buildings that would house town employees.

Payne is appealing the project for eight reasons: (1) the development of the lot is restricted by Superior Court order; (2) the town does not have the legal authority to develop the property without an order from the Superior Court, and approval from the Attorney General’s office; (3) the town’s application failed to disclose the restricted use of the property; (4) the Planning Board failed to disclose its attorney’s legal opinion during a public hearing on the project; (5) the Planning Board’s final approval was granted without written comments by town officials and commissions; (6) the plan is inconsistent with the town’s comprehensive plan; (7) plans for five dwelling units on the property is inconsistent with the comp plan and zoning ordinances; (8) the Planning Board failed to conduct an open meeting of the proposed plan of development, in violation of the town’s zoning ordinance.

Roberge said that as a result he “couldn’t release the contract for Connecticut Valley Homes,” the company that was scheduled to deliver the three-bedroom modular home to the island in June. Payne’s appeal of the Planning Board’s decision will be heard before the Zoning Board of Appeal on March 27.

Plans for the Thomas Property project involves installing a single-family modular home on the southeast corner of the property at a cost of $500,000, for housing a senior town employee, and converting the existing two-bedroom Thomas House into a four-unit rental dwelling for housing town employees at a cost of about $1 million.

Roberge is required to vacate his apartment on Water Street at the end of May. The plan had been for him to occupy the modular home on the Thomas Property after it was installed. Roberge said a $12,000 line item has been included in the proposed 2020 fiscal year budget for his housing support, although he does not have any potential housing lined up.

Roberge said he was working on updating the Town Council regarding other housing opportunities for a senior town employee on the island. “Once that comes to fruition, I will certainly inform the council about it.”

“So we have potential added expense because of the delay,” said Councilor Chris Willi, before asking Roberge if there would be costs associated with the legal expense of the appeal.

Roberge said there would be legal expenses that could get costly if the town has to challenge the decision rendered by the Zoning Board of Appeal. At that point, he said, the council could decide if it wants to vacate the project.

Socha Cohen, a Planning Board member in attendance at the meeting, said, “When the Planning Board supported the project it was conditional that we would not be violating any laws or rules. So I’m hoping that, whatever the outcome is, that the Zoning Board of Appeal doesn’t bring it back to the Planning Board and delay the process even further.”

Councilor Sven Risom said the appeal creates two issues for the town: added expenses, and having to find housing for the town manager.

“We’ll have to deal with those soon,” he said.

Councilor Martha Ball asked Roberge who would be representing the Planning Board at the March 27 hearing.

Roberge said the Planning Board would be represented by Town Solicitor Katherine Merolla, and the Zoning Board of Appeal would be represented by a temporary solicitor since former Land-Use attorney Don Packer retired at year’s end.