Planning Board supports zone change
The New Shoreham Planning Board voted May 12, to give a favorable advisory to the Town Council regarding the request of the Block Island Housing Board to rezone its newly acquired property on West Side Road from the RA Zone to the New Harbor Commercial Zone. The change is to accommodate the Housing Board’s plan to build affordable housing on this property, Plat 18, Lot 2-3, located between the Block Island Cemetery and E. Searles Ball Housing. The Housing Board is planning to build upwards of ten units with a mix of rentals and units for sale, in sizes ranging from studio to two bedrooms.
In their decision, the Planning Board advised that the zoning change is contingent on affordable housing being built on the site, whether by the Housing Board or any other entity. The zone change is not to be used for private development of market-value homes.
Member Gail Hall suggested the contingency idea, and it was wholeheartedly embraced by Housing Board Chair Cindy Pappas. Pappas does not anticipate any reason why the Housing Board would not be able to build the units, but if they were unable, she agreed the zoning should return to Residential A.
Planning Board Chair Margie Comings asked Pappas what type of housing and what density the Housing Board was envisioning for the project. Pappas explained that the planning is still in its infancy stage, with a need for a topographical survey before they can truly pinpoint exactly how many units and exactly how to proceed. She did say that they are hoping for at least ten units, possibly attached-style housing.
The topic of size, type, and price of the homes in the new development had been the subject of much discussion at the Housing Board’s meeting on May 11. Josh Maldonado and Meg Vitacco, proprietors of Mutt Hut, submitted a letter to the Housing Board, signed by several other members of the community, outlining their ideas and vision for the new housing development.
In the letter, Maldonado expressed the desire for smaller housing units with “good bones,” rather than “larger houses built with lower quality, cost-cutting material.” He also states in the letter that basements and garages are not deal-breakers, instead promoting “single-floor, high-ceilinged, Craftsman-style bungalows.” Maldonado stated in the meeting that the goal was to promote the more sustainable lifestyle that is being embraced by many of the year-round residents. He said people would happily rent, they don’t have to own, and they would be happier with smaller sized units so that more could be built. He envisions the smaller units being slightly less expensive than the $250,000 starting price for the Cherry Hill Project, and maintains that people will be happy with a smaller home and a smaller price tag, as long as it is still well built and promotes a sustainable community.
At this Housing Board meeting, Member Millie McGinnes expressed concern that people might not really want to buy condos or attached homes, preferring instead to rent until they are able to purchase a freestanding house. Pappas pointed out that the Old Harbor Meadow property has been successful with their sales, and cited Maldonado’s letter as evidence that if the housing is high quality and affordable, a smaller size and floor plan is okay. Pappas mentioned that they are looking to build studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. Reached for comment several days later, Maldonado pointed to the postings on the Block Island Bulletin Board to indicate the vast number of people desperately seeking housing on Block Island. He called
the idea that people would be hesitant to purchase smaller homes “sorely out of touch” with the reality faced by many of the island’s residents, season after season, year after year.
At the Planning Board meeting on May 12, Member Chris Willi touched on a similar issue when he asked if the Housing Board was examining the topic of attainable housing, housing for those individuals who are too well-off to qualify for affordable housing yet not well-off enough to actually afford a home on Block Island. Pappas said that while we do have this particular demographic present on the island, at this time the Housing Board has to work within the constraints created by the state as it relates to income restrictions. She stated that the state mandates are less restrictive for rentals than they are for purchases. In effect, one can have a little bit higher income and still qualify for an affordable housing rental, while simultaneously being ineligible for an affordable housing purchase.
Planning Board Member Mary Anderson asked if there would be a burden on the water and sewer systems with the addition of more units. Pappas had previously discussed the benefits of the property being connected to the town’s water system, making it easier to build more units without the added expense of setting up wells and septic systems. Pappas said she had been in contact with the Water Department and while they needed the exact number of units to appropriately plan, she did not anticipate there being a problem. She said she would follow up on it, nevertheless.
Water supply had no doubt been on everyone’s mind, as at the Housing Board meeting on May 11, the Housing Board had voted to purchase a water filtration system for one of the wells at their Cherry Hill property. The well serves two homes and the simple cartridge purification system was ineffective. As Housing Board Member John Spier pointed out, the requirement is only to provide potable water to the development, which had been done. Typically, the burden of further filtration for taste and clarity falls on the homeowner, but the Housing Board opted to purchase the system and leave the maintenance and upkeep to the new homeowners. Pappas pointed out to the Planning Board that the new project on West Side Road would benefit greatly from being on the town’s water and sewer.
The Planning Board voted unanimously to move the proposal forward to the Town Council with a favorable finding to amend the New Shoreham Zoning Map to rezone Plat 18, Lot 2-3 from RA Zone to New Harbor Commercial Zone. This will necessitate a
New Shoreham Comprehensive Plan Amendment to Future Land Use Map to change Plat 18, Lot 2-3 from Low Density Residential to Medium Density Residential, a change that was approved by the Council unanimously on May 19. Now their recommendation will be sent to the Rhode Island Division of Statewide Planning with an estimated turnaround
date of July 21, 2021. In the meantime, the Housing Board plans to move forward with the surveys that they need in order to figure out just how many, what size, and what type of housing they can build on the property.