2009-09-10 / Front Page

Proposed zoning ordinance will create non-conforming lots

By Tyler Will

After a heated discussion during its Sept. 2 meeting, the Jamestown Planning Commission voted to keep lot width restrictions in the zoning ordinance proposal – changing the status of 19 existing lots to non-conforming, unless changes are made to the ordinance in the future.

The proposal calls for maximum lot widths of 96 feet in the downtown district and 120 feet in the CL district. Between the two zones, 19 lots – including Jamestown Town Hall – exceed those maximums.

The intensity of the discussion rose to such a level that some commission members questioned the principal role of the Planning Commission, and what legal abilities it has.

The width restriction measure would make it difficult for property owners to buy an adjacent lot and build one building on the two lots. While a land owner could get a variance from the commission, Commissioner Michael Smith acknowledged that the commission has not always been open to giving them.

“I have been to the Planning Commission for variances, I have sat on the Planning Commission and granted variances, and I have seen how people were brow beaten into accepting the wishes of individual members of the planning board,” he said.

Commissioner Richard Ventrone proposed a motion to keep the restrictions at 96 feet and 120 feet and, after a second endorsement from Commission Vice Chairman Gary Girard, the measure passed five to one, with Smith as the lone dissenter.

Smith, who was recently reappointed to the commission after a decade-long absence, wanted to abolish maximums.

According to previous zoning discussions, the restrictions are designed to prevent land owners from buying two large lots and building a single structure that might compromise the character of the town or contradict the town’s downtown plan. It is also meant to keep continuity and proportion among town buildings.

Ventrone said that a business wanting to buy two lots and build one structure on them could still do it, but would have to come before the Planning Commission for a variance. Smith responded that such a scenario would give the commission too much power.

“You have never had to go before a board and at their arbitrary decision, been told, ‘No, you cannot buy your neighbor’s lot,’” Smith said. “This is a whole new concept, and it should not be taken lightly.”

Planning Commission Chairman Michael Swistak tried to achieve a compromise by suggesting an increase in the lot width maximums to the size of the largest existing lots in town. If this compromise had been adopted, the lot width maximum in downtown Jamestown would have been 210 feet, the lot width of the property on which St. Mark’s Church is located. In the CL district, it would have been 190 feet, according to town records given to the Press.

The width extension compromise met with little support, but Swistak proposed adding a footnote to the ordinance. He proposed that owners of any lots that would become non-conforming under the restrictions would not need a variance to do anything else with their current property.

That proposed compromise met with support, and passed five to one, with Smith abstaining.

Still, Commissioner Barry Holland cautioned the commission about making an already-dense document even more difficult to understand.

“If you start adding footnotes, it starts getting not so easy to follow anymore,” Holland said.

There was some backlash to the idea of keeping the maximums, however.

Associate Town Solicitor Wyatt Brochu said that an owner of an existing, non-conforming lot could subdivide the land and the town would not be able to stop it.

In other business, the commission also discussed private helicopter landing zones, and the town voted to ban helicopter landings.

At the beginning of the meeting, Alan Andrade, vice president of operations and maintenance for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, said it is his organization’s obligation to promote flying. He offered statistics that suggested helipads are used only occasionally.

“It is very, very limited,” Andrade told the commission. “Most helistops are normally established as a means of enhancing the property value.”

Andrade added that all private landing requests must be made through RIAC, and that the busiest private helistops generate only three to five landing requests per month.

Town Planner Lisa Bryer said there are two approved helistops in Jamestown, and two under review. Current town laws say any land use not listed is prohibited, but Brochu said the way the language is crafted, a violation occurs only when a helicopter actually lands on the property; simply having a helistop is not an inherent violation.

“Things like this can slip by and the town does not get notified and it is right in their back yard,” Girard said.

The commission said RIAC should adjust its laws. When approving a helipad, the organization does not check if applicants have already satisfied their town’s laws.

“Coastal Resources [Management Council] will not even talk to you if you do not have your town’s permission,” Girard said. “They [RIAC] should have a similar policy.”

Holland asked if there were any properties in Jamestown that were so big that no one would care if a helicopter landed there. Ventrone said helicopter landings would violate the principles of the Charrette, the town’s future plan.

It is evident that the people of Jamestown do not want heliports, Ventrone said.

“As representatives of what the people want, I think that we need to look into this and if we need a law, we will make an ordinance,” he said.

The Planning Commission unanimously voted to ask the Town Council to request that Bruce Keiser address the issue of heliports in Jamestown.

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