Hearing on revised 'developer' fees proposal continues next month
A proposed "developer" ordinance has a number of islanders worried that the town may hire high-cost consultants at a developer's expense. The amendment is scheduled for a continued public hearing with the Town Council on April 9.
As written, the ordinance would allow the town to charge anyone making changes to their property for consultants to review a development plan prior to the start of a project. The main complaint from business owners and home owners is that the amendment was poorly crafted.
"The way it's written, there's no right of appeal," said Michael de Angeli, head of the Harbor Commission. Writing as a concerned citizen, de Angeli sent his criticisms regarding the proposal to town officials. He citied unlimited power, conflicts of interest, and no limit on costs and proceedings.
Town Planner Lisa Bryer recently met with the new Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero to discuss changes to the proposal addressing the complaints aired at the first public hearing.
In the revised ordinance, the developer fee could only be allowed by the Planning Commission or the Zoning Board of Review, Bryer said.
In the first draft of the proposal, the planner and the building official had been given authority to request consultants on behalf of the town for development applications. "By leaving it up to the boards, it will put the discussion in a public realm, so everyone can know what's going on," Bryer explained.
According to the town planner, Ruggiero suggested putting thresholds in the ordinance. "Some things would not be subject to review, such as a subdivision under five lots, and a commercial development of less than 2,000 square feet," Bryer said.
Bryer emphasized that leeway for the town to hire needed expertise for a development was critical. "When you don't have the professional staff necessary in order for the planning commission to make an informed decision, it's crucial to bring in outside help," Bryer said. She referred to a plan where the town hired an architectural consultant because of questions on the design that could not be answered by board members or municipal staff. "Everyone was happy about the outcome. The property owner was happy to pay the fee," she said.
Planning Commission Chairman Gary Girard supported the planner's view, and used the Cedar Lane major subdivision plan submitted by Joseph Manning as another example. "Abutters asked for well testing. But we know nothing about hydrology, because we don't have a hydrologist on staff. So we got the expert advice. When they have their own engineers, we need help," Girard noted.
The proposed process would benefit the developer also, Girard said. By spending roughly $2,000 in the beginning, the applicant ends up with a better plan in the long run. "Now, it takes us a lot longer to explain what we need and get the help," he said, adding that having the ordinance in place would shorten the process for the developer, not lengthen it. "It provides a step that allows the process to keep moving forward."
Girard called for more education about why the proposal is on the table. "If a developer comes in with all their experts and offers analysis, we have no one to tell us if it's correct or not."
Islanders agreed that if an amendment addressing consultant needs is proposed, it should be drafted it so the process is clear. "It's not just a big subdivision issue, but it affects the little guy as well," said Michael Swistak, a former president of the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce. Because the proposed amendment was so loosely written, "they can hire anybody they want, there's no opportunity to give input; yet he pays the bill," he said.
Swistak said improvements to a property increase property values and increased taxes. He suggested offering a tax break if the town planned on charging a developer up front, or to take the fee out of the new tax increase. "You're going to get the money from the guy ultimately; it's part of the total budget problem," he said. "Planning should have a legal expense budget, and the town should fund it."
Swistak gave credit to Councilwoman Barbara Szepatowski for suggesting that a developer be offered the choice of two or three professionals. "The council should include a sunset clause, so in 12 to 18 months we can come back and look at it to see if it works," he added.
Conanicut Marine Services owner William Munger questioned why the amended clause was needed. Munger said that unless large retails chains want to build here, the town has "plenty of expertise for all these routine things." Munger suggested that the review process could be used in a neighbor versus neighbor contention. "If you're a developer and want to put a back porch on your house, who will stop your neighbor from getting involved?" he asked.
Munger also said that no parameters were attached to the amendment as to when it would be used. "If a commissioner wants to spin an applicant's wheel, here is the way," he said.
Others did not interpret the same threat as those present at the hearing. Builder and contractor Dick Rembijas considered the amendment to target large developments or subdivisions, not his smaller work. "I figured it goes after the big guy, not me," he said about the proposal.
Council President David Long was not convinced the handful of critics in the audience represented the greater community's point of view. He said that the new solicitor would look at the proposed ordinance and make necessary revisions based on the community's comments. "The council thought it was a good idea," Long said.