2009-10-08 / Front Page

Zoning amendment discussion on tap for this evening

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Jamestown Planning Commission will hold a workshop this evening for the purpose of educating the Town Council and any other interested parties about its proposed amendments to the town zoning ordinance.

The draft amendments would establish guidelines and variances for affordable housing construction – especially in the downtown area.

The package of amendments will not be up for a council vote tonight. However, Town Planner Lisa Bryer told the Press that “it would be desirable if they voted before the election because the current council was installed just before [the 2007 conference on downtown planning], and many of them have come to our meetings to listen in, so they are the ones familiar with the proposal and it would be preferable if they were the ones who acted on it.”

Town Council President Julio DiGiando said he hoped the council will debate and vote on the zoning ordinance before the November election, but declined to predict if the vote would be held on Oct. 15 – when the council is scheduled to hold a formal hearing on the amendments. The council’s adoption of the amendments, Bryer believes, would go a long way toward helping Jamestown increase its inventory of affordable housing.

Under Rhode Island law, 10 percent of the housing available for rent or purchase in every municipality must be “affordable” for specific residents in geographically defined areas of the state. Residents qualifying for such housing are those whose incomes are less than 80% of the median income in the defined area (which, in the case of Jamestown, is the Provi- dence metropolitan area).

Currently, the percentage of Jamestown housing which meets the definition of affordable for its income area is “just under 4 percent,” Bryer said. “We were actually over 4% at one point in the last decade, but the marketrate housing built since then has brought down the percentage because we’re not gaining any affordable units.”

Under its 2005 Affordable Housing Plan, Jamestown plans to reach the 10% goal by 2035, which, Bryer said, means adding eight affordable housing units per year. Unfortunately, she added, “Everything we’ve attempted in the past five years has been unachievable primarily because of archeological issues [meaning Native American artifacts] discovered at the sites.”

A strategy to reach the 10% goal was first proposed by the Jamestown Affordable Housing Plan, which was unveiled in 2005. In October 2007, the Downtown Visioning Charrette kicked off an effort to integrate the process for affordable housing reviews with those performed for commercial development because “it was clear,” Bryer said, “that most of the affordable housing would be in the downtown area, primarily because it has town water and sewer. So, after the Charrette, we hired a team of consultants and they delivered a draft proposal in March [of 2008].”

The proposed amendments that arose from that early proposal would designate the village as a special development district for affordable housing. The village is zoned R8, which means each lot has to be at least 8,000 sq. ft. in size, but the amendments would allow affordable housing to be sited on lots as small as 6,000 sq. ft.

“The smaller lots wouldn’t be out of character for the village,” Bryer said. “As part of the Charrette, we developed a detailed village map, which showed a lot of variation. We have lots that are 5,000 to 8,000 sq. ft. and plenty of them are over 8,000 sq. ft.”

A three-prong strategy

The proposed lot-size variance is the first in a three-prong strategy that the amendments would facilitate. The second and third prongs would apply island-wide, with the first being a proposal to allow “accessory apartments” – meaning apartments added to the structure of existing dwellings – for affordable housing tenancy.

Currently, “We don’t allow accessory apartments in Jamestown at all,” Bryer said, “and we are saying in this amendment that we would allow them as long as they are permanently affordable – and count towards the 10% goal.”

The third prong of the strategy (which also has island-wide applicability) would be an amendment for ‘inclusionary zoning,’” Bryer said, explaining that this piece of the proposal would require 20% of all multi-unit developments with more than five housing units – whether the units are in a multifamily structure or built on divided lots – to qualify as affordable housing.

Besides facilitating affordable housing development, the amendments would establish guidelines for the “form-based” zoning in the special development district. Form-based zoning, Bryer explained, “is much more focused on the form of an urban environment than the uses of a building within the environment. It’s more concerned with things like the streetscape and the pedestrian experience.

“Under our current ordinance,” she continued, “you need a special permit for mixed uses in the same building – but the proposed amendment would remove that because we want to encourage mixed uses in our commercial district. And, because we’re less concerned with uses than form, we’re proposing some basic formbased standards that will guide the Planning Commission, as well as the applicant.”

The standards will specify, for example, “how far an awning may encroach [the space over] a sidewalk, and how high the awning has to be,” Bryer said. “They will tell you that you have to provide a minimum of one bicycle rack within the public or private frontage for every 10 parking places. Those kinds of standards haven’t been available to applicants in the past, and that has been frustrating for them.”

A controversial topic

The proposed standards for parking areas sparked a lot of discussion because parking is always a controversial topic in Jamestown, Bryer said, adding that the guidelines for “transition zones” between commercial and residential structures were particularly contentious.

“The Planning Commission thought long and hard about [transition] standards that would be acceptable to both the commercial and residential communities, and they came up with what I call a ‘soft standard,’ which strongly encourages commercial buildings adjacent to residential areas to meet the standards for ‘commercial limited districts’ in terms of setbacks and uses,” she said. “They decided against mandating transition zones with special standards, but they’re strongly encouraging [developers] to take residential areas into consideration.”

The workshop is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. The zoning amendment proposal can be downloaded at http://www.jamestownri.net/ plan/planning.html.

Return to top