Planners discuss tightening of high groundwater ordinance
The Planning Commission spent much of its meeting last week discussing possible amendments to the Zoning Ordinance relating to the high groundwater table and impervious layer overlay district. The commission focused on setting specific limits on building space within subdistrict A zones.
Planning Commission Chairman Gary Girard told the board members at the July 19 session that their goal was to identify vague areas and set clearer standards. "It will save them (the applicants) a lot of fees and save us a lot of time," he said about the amendments.
The Town Planner Lisa Bryer said that she, the town administrator, and the building official met with the state Department of Environmental Management earlier this month, she said. They told the DEM about problems that result without careful development, Bryer said. "We gave them some ideas, that we wrestle with on a daily basis. They now know a little more about what we need here," she noted.
Commissioner Richard Ventrone asked for more specific and definitive words in the ordinance. Referring to the high groundwater table, he called for a prohibition to building below one foot.
Commissioner Barry Holland countered that such a policy would create forced takings of property, according to the law. "If we say at some level zero inches to X, doesn't that constitute taking the property?" he asked.
Holland asked what the definition of wetlands was in the ordinance. Bryer said it used to be 12 inches, for a significant period of the growing season at least. Holland noted that if in fact a groundwater table was too high to be built on, "then it's going to be wetlands anyway."
He suggested inserting a caveat in the ordinance that defines prohibitive as zero inches to whatever the designated legal limit is considered to be for wetlands. "Get an answer from DEM as to what the legal level is, then ask Larry (Parks, town solicitor) to see if it can be done. Then we can use the wetlands act," Holland said.
Valerie Malloy from the Jamestown Shores asked why the commission did not go to the town first, if the policies were stricter than the state laws on development. "If they came to you first, and found out from you all they needed to do and said forget about it, then they save that money," Malloy said. Charlotte Zarlengo of Seaside Drive agreed. "DEM rarely denies now because the new (individual sewage disposal) system works underwater," she noted.
Girard directed the town planner to check with the Town Council regarding the process.
In other business, Gail Sylvia showed the commission a threedimensional model of her development plan for a three-storey building on Luther Street that would serve a mixed use, with and adult day-care center operating on the first floor, and a residential apartment on the top floor.
Ventrone objected to the size of the plan. "This building is just too big for this lot. We need this kind of service, but we don't need this size," he said. Silvia replied that she has looked everywhere, but this was what was available.
Ventrone asked if she considered building something on the mainland. Silvia said, "The entire reason why we did this is because there is no day care. If I'm going to pick residents up here, I'm not going to take them across the bridge. That doesn't make sense."
Ventrone voiced concern for future use of the property if the plan is accepted, but Silvia educated Ventrone in the conditions of an approved use. She noted that if a new owner tried to use the property for anything other than the use a variance was intended for, he would have to go back before the board.
Brown suggested enhancing the building in some way, and Girard asked about the possibility of reducing or reworking the living space on the top floor.
Bryer noted the intent of the ordinance was to get away from the look of a box. She added that funds were available in the budget for the town to hire an architectural consultant to design an idea that would fit with the town's character. Bryer mentioned that other towns hire consultants if they are concerned with a new building's appearance.
"We are not required to charge back to the applicant," she added. Ventrone said that he would
not spend any tax money on "something that sets a precedent." He voiced opposition to spending tax money on architectural fees that he said should be paid by the applicant.
Bryer said the money would be well spent. "The downtown commercial (area) impacts everyone in the community. If you are concerned about the look, the design, then it would be smart to do," she advised.
Commissioner Jean Brown made a motion to hire a consultant to be paid "from our architectural budget" to create plans more suitable to the downtown character.
Ventrone asked how the money would be paid back, and why hiring an architect rather than letting the applicant pay would be beneficial.
Bryer said, "The difference is that you'd be hiring someone who has the best interests of the town at heart."
Sylvia stressed that this business provided a service to the community. "Most towns subsidize their day care centers. We are not asking for money from you. It's a misnomer when people think this is a cash cow, because it isn't."
Bryer agreed, using North Kingstown as an example. "The town goes in and plans a design for businesses," she said.
Holland suggested amending the motion that if the plans were not accepted, the applicant would not have to pay. "If the town approves, the applicant will reimburse the town," he said.
The motion carried 4-1, with Ventrone voting against it.
Commissioners Betty Hubbard and Victor Calabretta were absent.