Plans for hotel renovations hit snag

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 5:30pm

While renovations to the Surf are proceeding more as less as planned, Lark Hotels’ vision for the Gables Inn has hit a roadblock — town zoning ordinances. About two months ago representatives for Lark, along with attorney Joseph Priestley, presented their plans for the property to the Town Council. At that meeting, they proposed constructing 10 two-story cottages for guests behind the existing inn. According to the article in the April 6, 2019 edition of The Block Island Times, the cottages would make the property “into a little village” called The Grove. Priestley was quoted as saying these were “accessory residential structures” which are allowed in the Historic District.

Fast forward to June 12, when Priestley appeared before the Planning Board seeking a recommendation to the Town Council to amend the Zoning Ordinance “regarding performance standards for an Accessory Residential Structure.” The applicable section of the ordinances is 511: Accessory Residential Structure.

Priestley prefaced his remarks by saying that the proposed change would “allow for greater flexibility of design” for hotels on the island.

The crux of the problem for Lark is that under the zoning ordinances, “no rent, or other compensation, shall be paid by any occupant of any residential accessory structure.” The proposed amendment would make an exception for hotels and inns, effectively allowing for the cottages to be rented out as guest rooms.

Planning Board Chair Margie Comings threw out the first roadblock: “‘Residential’ is not what we’re talking about.”

Bill Landry, attending his first meeting “on the other side of the table” as the new land use attorney for the Planning Board, said: “By title, that section” of the zoning ordinance is “intended to apply to residential.” He did allow that the change “could be desirable for the town,” but “the challenge is to make sure there aren’t unintended consequences.”

Town Planner Alison Ring, who was not at the meeting, had sent a memo on the subject to the Planning Board, dated April 26, 2019, which reads: “the name Accessory Residential Structures does indicate the intention of a residential rather than commercial use. Sections 407 and 408 of the Zoning Ordinance address the use and development of inns and hotels and could be a more appropriate location for amendments related to that specific use.”

“My head is sort of reeling with the unintended consequences,” said Planning Board member Sam Bird. He said it could create a “back-door approach to something we have consciously tried to avoid,” such as a motel, which is prohibited on Block Island.

Cooking facilities of any kind are prohibited in residential accessory structures, as well as in hotel and inn rooms, and although Priestley said that there would be no cooking facilities in the proposed guest cottages, Bird said: “I would counsel great caution. People will stretch the line as far as it will stretch.”

Priestley said he will “revisit” the matter at a future meeting of the Planning Board, perhaps with a proposal to amend the zoning ordinances regarding hotels and inns as opposed to the Accessory Residential Structure ordinance.

Christopher Warfel’s request to amend a zoning ordinance likewise didn’t gain much traction with the Planning Board. Warfel would like sections 425 and 517 regarding the placement of solar arrays to be amended to allow for arrays to be sited within a front set-back. Currently, that is only allowed if there is no other viable site on the property for a solar array.

“I’m very much opposed to having solar in front yards facing the street,” said Comings. She felt that it “violates the pastoral, village feel” of the island, although she did allow that “sometimes it was hard to determine which side is the ‘front yard.’”

That prompted some discussion as to whether a street or road should be defined as something owned by the town or state, as opposed to a private lane; the concerns of abutters, and aesthetics overall.

“Our job is to protect Block Island,” said Comings.

Bird added that owners of solar arrays may wish to site them where they wouldn’t actually see them themselves. He also said that when the original ordinances were drafted, it was to “make it easier for solar.”

“It ain’t broke,’ he said. “The way the ordinance stands now is perfectly reasonable.”

Both Bird and Comings said that there were changes “coming in from the state” involving solar systems, and those would need to be reviewed by Ring. (There is proposed legislation wending its way through the R.I. Legislature that would require every city and town to establish solar-siting standards by April 30, 2020. In the Senate, it’s bill S661, in the House, it’s H5789.)

Other changes coming down from the state that will need Ring’s attention involve building heights in flood zones. Landry said that other towns were taking the step to disregard the area, up to five feet under a raised building, in calculating building heights.

Comings said she was worried that homes in coastal zones taking advantage of the changes would “stick out like a sore thumb.” Board member Denny Heinz expressed concern about the impact on the views of those directly behind those coastal properties.