2007-10-18 / Front Page

Island zoning rules need an overhaul

By Michaela Kennedy

"Your zoning ordinance is not a strong enough document to protect what you want to protect," says planning consultant and architect Donald Powers. His observation of Jamestown planning practices was one of many offered at the recreation center on Monday night.

The Oct. 15 community planning meeting provided a chance for residents to hear feedback generated from the Jamestown Vision Charrette so far. The community planning project has already brought forth new insights for the town.

The coalition of experts, hired by the town to recommend design guidelines for development, shot holes in the town's zoning policies. "A conventional zoning ordinance reflects a time when there was more consensus of what development should be like," Powers noted.

Traditional ideas of zoning from a century ago did not anticipate the automobile, according to Powers. As development grew to accommodate drivers, land use became the focus of zoning laws, creating ordinances too blunt to respond well in a complex ecosystem. "We want to shepherd new development with consideration for preservation," Powers added.

Consultant and long-time summer resident Sandy Sorlien stepped in to explain a new planning code, SmartCode™, being implemented in many areas of the country and offering a response to sprawl development. She noted how architecture drives the style of a downtown area. The focus of development turns away from size and becomes an issue of scale.

Admittedly, the new ideas of form-based code, a focus of regulating building forms rather than addressing land use, is new. In addition, many people feel burned by the zoning process currently in place. The team assured the audience their intention was not to sell a plan. They want to draw what works out of the participants, and instill the information into a set of rules for development.

The team agreed that island residents have a strong sense of conservation and care for preservation. "It's been said in many ways, don't screw our island up," Powers reported.

Preservation of open space has become closely linked with the focus of development, and towns are responding.

"We need more than the good intentions of the planning board to make sure this ATM doesn't get built," Powers said as he flashed a picture of a drive-through money machine on the big screen. He drove home the point that the town's zoning laws, as they stand, could conceivably allow for such an eyesore.

Powers pressed the idea that attention to layout, architecture and style can transform people's negative ideas about development. "Design has a place in easing your fears," he said. Affordable housing, for example, conjures up ugly development in the minds of many. He flashed some examples of affordable housing that fit into local architectural style. Because sewer and water are available downtown, most of the state-mandated affordable housing development will be located there.

Some worries that have emerged from opinions collected about town include traffic flow, parking, and strains on natural resources. "Sustainability is important here. You want to make sure development does no harm," Powers commented. Outright fears of the loss of affordability or loss of diversity also emerged. "We are going to make a strong effort to allay those fears," he said.

A voice that cried for no more development has been frequently heard about town as well. Powers noted that, unless property laws were changed or the land trust buys up downtown property, "Narragansett Avenue will be developed."

Kevin Flynn, director of Statewide Planning, stood up to praise Jamestown for the charrette process. Flynn announced that Jamestown would be granted $10,000 from the Planning Challenge grant program that supports regional transportation and land use planning and implementation strategies. He noted that Jamestown was a pioneer in new ways of approaching development, and that the town would set an example by which other communities may learn.

For those who have not yet learned about the downtown charrette, or would like to chart the progress of the project, go online to www.jamestownvision.org, or stroll through the town hall this week to see the designers in action. The planning team would also like to encourage everyone to join them in a closing presentation on Friday night at the recreation center.

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