Town calls for updates in high groundwater ordinance
A May 18 public workshop discuss possible updates to the high groundwater ordinance attracted about 60 concerned citizens, mostly from the Jamestown Shores area.
The discussion panel included the Town Council, the Zoning Board of Review, and the Planning Commission. Town Council President David Long moderated the work session, and accepted input from the audience after discussion between the council and the two boards.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser gave an overview of the zoning ordinance amendments adopted in February 2003. The amendments relate to the protection of critical lands containing freshwater wetlands, high groundwater tables, or shallow impervious layers. Keiser noted that areas with high ground water or impervious layers, labeled in the ordinance as subdistrict A, are mainly in the Jamestown Shores. Keiser displayed a map of the island with an overlay of the district classifications.
New construction on the island since the year 2000 averaged about 10 houses a year, Keiser said. According to his presentation, only three new homes were built in subdistrict A out of an islandwide total of 31 since the adoption of the ordinance. "We are seeing a reduction in the density of lot coverage and gross living area as compared to lot size," he pointed out.
According to the state Department of Environmental Management, 15 out of 47 requests for individual septic disposal systems on the island, 32 percent, have been denied between 2003 and 2005. Keiser noted that the DEM is paying closer attention than in the past to ISDS impact on neighboring properties. He also said that the town's Water Protection Committee has acquired more than 44 acres of land in high groundwater areas since 2000, when money was first allocated to the committee. Keiser added that the committee welcomes people, especially in the Shores, to help in prioritizing land acquisitions.
"Areas for improvement are the meat of what we want to talk about tonight in the new budget," Keiser said, adding that the council allocated funds for a full-time engineering staff.
Planning Commission Chairman Gary Girard pointed out that a high groundwater table was not the only concern. "You could have (a lot with) an 8-foot water table, but what if it falls on a ledge impervious layer? Every single lot is different, and that's why we review them," he said.
Planning Commissioner Richard Ventrone suggested a stricter policy within the ordinance. "We have nothing that prohibits someone from building on a high groundwater lot," he said.
Zoning Board chairman Thomas Ginnerty told of problems found in the Jamestown Shores. "The Shores was divided around World War II into very small lots with small cottages. There are no sidewalks or parks in the area with the exception of Head's Beach. It's very difficult to limit development. Under the present system, you are going to see every lot developed unless we do something. I encourage the town to buy up as many lots as possible. Once the lot is developed it's gone forever. Cost is a factor, but it should be a strong consideration," Ginnerty said.
Planning Commissioner Victor Calabretta said the ordinance was created to protect ground water
but was creating other problems. He noted that lots with high groundwater tables of less than a foot cause construction to start at ground level. "Most applications come in with approvals, but have fill of three or four feet. On a property that used to be flat is now a mound which creates a valley downstream. It's turning into a surface-water issue," Calabretta said.
Long asked how many people felt the ordinance needed to be stricter. All hands around the table raised, which triggered applause from the audience.
Town Solicitor Lauriston Parks warned that if the ordinance was written in such a way that it made certain lots unbuildable, "You are going to be confronted with a regulatory taking." Parks noted that the argument someone would make against the application is that they can use a lot as a vegetable garden. "That is beneficial use," he said. Parks also said that some South County ordinances do not allow fill without an approved development plan.
Zoning Board member Ray Iannetta suggested giving a tax deduction for those who turned a lot over to the town.
Planning Commissioner Barry Holland showed his support for the present ordinance, saying that in general it was working pretty well. "This whole process makes us look at each lot individually," he added.
Ginnerty pointed out that expert testimony is needed in order to say that the applicant has not met the standard of safety .
Keiser noted that the expansion of engineering staff would help the problem. "The (town) staff has been frustrated because they have not had the time or money to come up with expert testimony," he said.
Planning Commissioner Betty Hubbard said she was pleased to see the expansion of engineering staff included in the budget.
Town Councilor Barbara Szepatowski said the town should be taking the view of buying as many lots as possible. "We need to be looking at how we are going to raise the money to buy these lots out. Another thing, there should have been other places that we should be looking at our ground water," she said.
Long agreed they were valid points that should be considered in future discussions. "The reason why we're here tonight is to discuss this document," he reminded the panel.
Zoning Official Fred Brown suggested giving criteria for specific kinds of foundations that would be acceptable, whether it be on piers or concrete wall, for example.
Long confirmed that all agreed that defining the buildable size and changing the percentage of buildable size should be amended in the ordinance.
Archie Boulet of Lugger Street spoke out, calling for a moratorium on development. "You've got a water problem, you've got sewer problems," he said.
Solicitor Parks responded by saying that it was difficult to justify a moratorium for three houses a year. Keiser noted that communities could enact moratoria for a six-month period only for reasonable cause. Dan Lilly noted that many residents were interested in doing minor development projects. "Consider carefully before putting in a moratorium," he said.
Hubbard voiced concern about people who go to the Planning Commission already signed up for a zoning board hearing. She said they try to push through a short timeline, "and that is often used as a tool against us."
Parks agreed that a development plan should not be scheduled to go before the zoning board until the applicant receives a recommendation from the Planning Commission.
Iannetta said there might be newer and better septic systems that the town does not know about. He suggested making criteria for the kind of ISDS should be used in subdistrict A. Calabretta warned those at the workshop to be careful of listing ISDS that the DEM may not have approved yet.
Charlotte Zarlengo of Seaside Drive thanked the boards for understanding the need for the ordinance. "We need these recharge areas. The house next to us had to increase the depth of the well before selling," she added.
District Rep. Bruce Long said he was looking into legislation that would make the DEM look at the cumulative effects of more wells and ISDS in high groundwater areas. "Maybe you could write that into the ordinance," he suggested.
Town Councilman Julio DiGiando suggested another night of discussion. "This morphs into a discussion about managing growth," he said.
Zoning board member Don Wineberg and Planning Commissioner Jean Brown were absent from the workshop.