2007-11-29 / News

Conservation Commission wants role in drafting any new building codes

By Dotti Farrington

Conservation Commissioners who have been monitoring the town's talks about form-based zoning are not satisfied yet with data they have seen on the use of environmental principles in guiding future town development.

This was the consensus they expressed at their Nov. 20 meeting, when they repeated their intent to meet with Town Planner Lisa Bryer to get more information and to share concerns, before any town agency takes final action. Chief among the commission's concerns is a desire to play a role in the code drafting process.

Commissioners said conservation matters should not be left for revisions of a code after damage may have been done by omission. Rather, they want an active, or proactive advisory role as the code is being developed.

Commissioner Mark Baker said he did not see enough "conservation perspective" in the talks in recent months about new town zoning. Zoning changes and development planning "will be the most important…hugely important… actions of the town in coming years," he suggested, and said environmental concerns did not seem defined and included.

Baker specified the group's concerns as protecting open space, natural areas and water. He asked if the commission needed its own professional consultant to work with the planning and zoning consultants. No decision was made about hiring a specialist.

Commission Chairman Chris Powell agreed with Baker that they needed to clarify what is being proposed, and the role they need to have to coordinate concerns, without disagreeing with those initiating the new rules. He and others wondered why they were not directly involved, for conservation perspectives, from the start of work on revising zoning.

Commissioner Kate Smith agreed, emphasizing language concerns about terms that are, or could be, "expansive and ambiguous."

Commissioner Patrick Driscoll said he was concerned about antiquated laws that need to be updated, regardless of activities of charettes and zoning changes. He said he was not aware of any discussion in the process in recent months that included attention to water, and water sources and resources.

Baker said the town "is at a turning point, in the midst of infilling. We need to be vigilant and to shape the development. The Conservation Commission is not an appendage, but has a major responsibility."

Powell appointed Baker, Smith and Driscoll to a committee to list issues for their meeting Dec. 11, and prepare for a presentation to the town planner in January as a way to define the role the conservationists might serve in the code development.

Planning Commissioners started in May its agenda to evaluate form-based zoning codes to be included in the zoning ordinance update. They hired Philadelphiabased Sandy Sorlein, national coordinating editor for SmartCode, a land development company for planning and urban design to assist in the process. The Commission also co-sponsored a workshop with the Town Council, Zoning Board of Review and Chamber of Commerce.

At the opening workshop, Sorlein, who has been an island summer resident for 54 years, said Jamestown has changed relatively little compared to other parts of the country and has maintained its rural character.

She talked about building height inviting more floors and setbacks that suburbanize a village. She cautioned against "looseness" and unintended consequences of zoning, such as adding sidewalks in a way that degrades. Sorlein said adopting codes is a long process and the town might need moratoriums on new projects until the code is adopted.

Jamestown is under a state mandate to update its zoning ordinance. "The focus is downtown because it is under the highest risk for change," the town planner said some months ago.

The town's zoning ordinance "is not a strong enough document to protect what you want to protect," according to planning consultant and architect Donald Powers. His comment in October was part of feedback to the Jamestown Vision Charette for community planning, including the probability of state mandated affordable housing in the downtown area.

A coalition of experts, hired by the town to recommend design guidelines for development, criticized the town's zoning policies. Traditional ideas of zoning from a century ago allowed development to accommodate vehicles and land use became the focus of zoning laws, creating ordinances not able to respond well in a complex ecosystem, Powers said.

Island residents have a strong sense of conservation and care for preservation, according to the consultants, who said they would work to offset fears about loss of affordability and diversity. Powers predicted village development unless property laws are changed.

The state has praised the local charette process, which is an intensive effort joining residents ideas with consultants' explanations. The status of work here is detailed on the web site, www.jamestownvision. org. It shows representation of opinions of 72 residents who completed surveys, and comments of about 90 residents at workshops. Many residents called for no further village or island development. Representatives of about 170 artists who live on the island spoke about their group and its economic role.

The town planner described the consultants as responsible for using form-based zoning for: downtown zoning, affordable housing, and for impacts on the entire island. Bryer identified the existing zones on the island, which are open space, public, residential, and commercial districts. The current zoning system used by the town is Euclidian or traditional, zoning. Traditional zoning divides the municipality into a series of mapped districts, and then assigns permitted uses to each zone. Bryer said, "Zoning by use generally ignores how much difference design can make." She also said traditional zoning has failed to adapt to special situations, such as historic districts or downtown needs and new waves of construction.

Residents also have been referred for more information to websites, www.formbasedcodes. org and www.placemakers.com.

Return to top