2007-08-09 / News

Controlling the Jamestown building boom

By Sam Bari

If national statistics are to be believed, most of the country is experiencing a building and real estate slump. However, just the opposite appears to be happening in every area of Conanicut Island.

According to Town Planner Lisa Bryer, 10 commercial properties are either being considered for development or are already involved in the development process. Town building official Fred Brown said that the number of applications to build new homes is as high as it has ever been during his 17- years on the job.

Bryer said that the applications are primarily falling into two categories, commercial development proposals, and high groundwater applications in the Jamestown Shores, in non-conforming areas. She said more commercial development proposals have come to her desk this year than in the last five years combined.

She also said that people "want to initiate specific businesses, or at least discuss the types of businesses that would be acceptable on properties for sale in the commercial district. Of those properties, three are residences that would be converted into businesses." She added that a number of the properties are being considered for rebuilding existing structures.

She went on to say that the planning commission is going to re-define the standards for commercial development based on the community's vision for the downtown area. She said that she felt it was important to be "very clear about what is acceptable and what is not."

Bryer attributed the new individual sewage disposal systems (ISDS) now being approved by the state as the primary contributing factor for the high increase in applications to build homes in nonconforming areas.

Brown concurred with Bryer about the new ISDS technology now deemed acceptable by the state for giving property owners of "formerly unbuildable lots, reason to believe they can develop those properties."

However, Brown went on to say that ISDS was only one factor in the equation for a property to be eligible for development. "When the bottomless sand filter (BSF) technology for ISDS became available a few years back, the town wrote ordinance number 314 to regulate development in high groundwater areas. They also hired Justin Jobin, an expert in the field, to administer the ordinance," Brown said.

He emphasized that just because the state decided to accept innovative and alternative technology for disposal systems on properties they originally denied, does not guarantee a free pass to property development, particularly in the area of the Jamestown Shores. He also noted that the ordinance was not designed to stop development, but was written to control development.

Brown explained that the ordinance was written in two parts to assure water quality protection and control storm water run-off. He said that the town also initiated a wastewater management program that mandates homeowners to maintain their septic systems. "Justin Jobin enforces this program," he said.

Brown said, "In most cases of people complaining about their wells being contaminated, they caused the contamination themselves through faulty septic systems."

Additionally, landowners must understand that decisions for allowing or not allowing development are made with the primary consideration being "impact on the area," Brown said.

Developing any piece of property affects surface water runoff, and each new home adds more people to the area. This means more traffic, more energy consumption, and more demands on the infrastructure. "Add a new development with a number of homes and the impact is enormous," Brown said.

"The town is not going to deny anyone their rights to build a home on their property if the design fits the criteria," Brown said. "But the governing rule is to develop with the least amount of impact. So the watchword for anyone wanting to build, particularly in a high groundwater area in Jamestown is, 'think small.'"

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