2007-04-19 / News

Fees for consulting on development approved

By Dotti Farrington

Town Councilors last week unanimously approved the revised new ordinance that enables town boards, but not individual offi- cials, to hire experts on planning and zoning topics at the expense of developers.

The second hearing was friendly and positive, as compared with the first hearing when opponents to the original draft spoke out about a perceived untrustworthy government and possibilities of outrageous costs for the experts. Residents opposed the ordinance as first aired last month as too open-ended and possibly antibusiness, or anti-developer. The revision was praised by several persons, including businessmen, at last week's hearing.

Speakers included planning and zoning commissioners, as well as Council President David Long, who each said the town should be able to have the expertise as needed without cost to taxpayers as developers seek their goals. Businessmen who spoke tended to agree, as long as they believed the fees were not inflated.

Long supported the call last month by other councilors for a review of the ordinance by new Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, known to have planning expertise. Ruggiero rewrote the ordinance on the basis of last month's hearing, and added information from town officials. The first draft was written by former Associate Solicitor Lauriston Parks, who said he based it on regulations he wrote for North Kingstown where he also had been a solicitor.

Ruggiero noted that many communities in the state require payment by developers for specialty reviews. The solicitor told councilors that the ordinance was comparable with other similar regulations in many municipalities, and that "it is not as broad as some."

No sunset clause

Businessman Michael Swistak said the revision was clear and constructive. Referring to concerns about residential matters, he asked about providing a sunset clause. Council Vice President Julio DiGiando and Councilors Barbara Szepatowski and William Kelly also favored a sunset clause. Ruggiero said residential definitions usually bring a development to the zoning board where concerns would be covered. He said

on development "if the ordinance does not work as intended, we can rewrite it." The solicitor also commented that laws "have a lot of overlap and (are) protective." The three councilors joined their colleagues in approving the new ordinance without a sunset clause.

Housing rules

Councilors heard comments about the possibility of need for consultants on all residential proposals, but did not change the ordinance. Town Planner Lisa Bryer said that the Planning Commission plans to review sub-division regulations "and to follow up with suggestions" similar to those in the new ordinance.

Bryer told the council she had met with representatives of the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce to discuss their concerns, the solicitor provided a satisfactory revision of the ordinance and the Planning Commission found it acceptable.

Ordinance provisions

The ordinance provides that planning and zoning boards may set fees for specific applications needing review of technical areas on which town staff members do not have expertise.

The new rules specify that the planning commission may ask for a project review fee for costs incurred by the town to retain one or more technical consultants to review projects. It covers all submissions for site plan approval, also known as development plan review, involving residential developments of more than five (5) dwelling units, nonresidential developments involving more than 2,500 square feet of building area and/or mixed use developments.

The adopted regulations specify that the planning commission will determine at its first meeting on each review if any consultant will be needed. The council considered the possibility that need for a consultant might not become apparent until after the first review. Ruggiero said "it is a fairness questions" and that the ordinance does provide that planners may obtain different or added outside experts if new issues require different and additional expert review.

Other aspects

Planners will provide "a goodfaith estimate," for such consultants to be paid prior to the review and developers will be billed for any balance for technical assistance up to the amount the commission pays for such services "necessary to perform an adequate review" and it will be paid before final plan approval is given.

The ordinance also provides that there may be an inspection fee, separate from the project review fee, and the inspection fee must be paid before any occupancy certifi- cate is issued.

The ordinance specifies that the zoning board of review is authorized to impose such project review fees for outside technical assistance for any special use permit and variance zoning relief petition submitted for its review, also based mainly on first meeting findings, cost estimates and payment before final decision.

DiGiando compared the new ordinance to what was achieved with the high water ordinance in helping the Planning Commission better manage growth in environmentally sensitive areas. "I hope this will do likewise to help resolve some issues," he commented.

Kelly asked about specifying a cap on fees. Ruggiero suggested the fees usually are incidental or minor, in comparison to overall development costs. He cited a landscaping consultant fee of $2,000 for landscaping a 15,000 square foot building (off-island) and suggested a cap ""will create an unnecessary barrier to town interest." The solicitor added, "If the fees are outrageous, there will always be recourse to return to the council."

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