2009-10-22 / Front Page

Vote on zoning code could come tonight

By Phil Zahodiakin

A vote on revisions to the town zoning ordinance could come tonight as the Town Council holds the latest in a series of public meetings on the amendments at Town Hall at 7 p.m.

Town Planner Lisa Bryer has clarified the ordinance revisions in response to issues raised during the meetings, increasing the odds that it will be cleared for a vote before the next council is sworn in.

The amendments are largely intended to foster development of affordable housing in the downtown area. They were debated during a public hearing held last week, and during the council meeting on Oct. 19.

“Hopefully, we can get this put to bed on Thursday,” Council President Julio DiGiando said at the Oct. 19 meeting.

Council member Barbara Szepatowski said she was already happy with the amendments, but council member Bob Sutton expressed reservations about language that refers to a “pattern book” of guidelines for architectural features.

“This pattern book is an elusive thing. I’ve been in government a long time, and [the use of a pattern book] fits into the way government ends up working. It is a very touchy issue: Is architecture going to be a factor [in decisions on building applications] or not? It’s hard to pin down,” he said.

Council member Michael White said the amendments have been a “very ambitious project,” and expressed irritation with those who have called progression toward a vote “cavalier.”

“The work on this started two years ago – when I was on the Planning Commission – and there have been numerous opportunities for people to speak their minds,” he said. “The amendments are well-written, they’re getting better by the day, and it’s not as if we’ll be sending them to the stone mason.”

The most steadfast opponent of a pattern book (which would apply only to the Village area) is council candidate Michael Smith, who last week told the council that the amendments “would be the most extensive change to the ordinance since 1973. It would introduce aesthetics and it would grant farreaching power to the Planning Commission to impose the ‘vernacular’ [of existing architectural styles] and hold applicants ‘hostage’ if their applications don’t follow the pattern book.”

Smith also warned that the amendments “will force you to pay for [plan] reviews by the town architect and consultant.” The language specifying these fees is already in the ordinance.

Bryer told the Press that fees such as these are not unusual for a small town.

“We have one of the lowest property tax rates in the state, and we do not have an architect and a landscape architect and other experts on staff. But there are occasions when we need that expertise, although it hasn’t been often. We’ve only used that language [to assess fees] once in the last two years.”

Other concerns about the proposed amendments were raised by Town Building Official Fred Brown during the Oct. 15 hearing. They included:

• Concern about the frequency of Technical Review Committee meetings, which will bring together multiple town officials to vet applications before they’re sent to the Planning Commission. Sutton and Smith, in particular, have raised concerns about the TRC – with Sutton arguing that there should be an appeals process for TRC recommendations. Brown said “the TRC will change the way we do business, and holding a TRC meeting once a month will slow down the process for minor permits.” Bryer has added language saying applicants aggrieved by a TRC recommendation “may request that the application be heard by the Planning Commission.” There was no addition regarding meeting frequency, but Bryer said, “This type of issue is administrative and it will be outlined in the Planning Commission bylaws.”

• Concern about “buildings-ofvalue” language, which includes a proposal to require prior review of any demolition plans for the Special Development District. Said Brown, “If you buy a house in the commercial district with the intent of tearing it down, and the Planning Commission determines it’s a ‘building of value,’ you’ll have to prove it’s worthy of demolition. It’s just a can of worms.” In her edits to the amendments, Bryer deleted the “buildings of value” terminology, inserting a statement saying buildings won’t be granted any such designation until the Zoning Map is amended and standards are developed.

• Concern about the proposal to allow the addition of accessory apartments in the Special Development District as affordable housing units. Brown felt that the proposal should not be limited to affordable housing or the Village area. However, Bryer told the Press, “If you opened it up to everyone, you would lose your ‘carrot’ for people to do it because people wouldn’t want to put a 30-year deed restriction [ensuring affordability] on the unit. We discussed this extensively at the Planning Commission, and my position is, ‘Let’s see how successful this is as affordable housing.’ If we gain 50 units over the next 10 years, then maybe we can open it up to people who want the apartments for family members.”

• Concern about the size of accessory structures. “Many residents on this island,” said Brown, “have many toys and they need many buildings to store them, which has resulted in some architectural monstrosities. If their size exceeds 1,200 sq. ft., you should require special use permits because that would go a long way towards ensuring that buildings are compatible with their neighborhoods.” Bryer added this requirement to the amendments.

• Concern about the use of storage containers as sheds on a permanent basis. “People living next to these things,” said Brown, “are forced to look at blaring advertisements, and I would tweak the amendment to reduce the size of the signage.” Bryer has added language limiting signage to a maximum of two sq. ft.; she also added an exemption for containers used at active construction sites.

• Concern about an increase in mixed uses within the commercial district. “We hear the word ‘vibrant’ [associated] with mixed uses,” said Brown, “but mixed uses bring problems because commercial uses make noise. We already get many noise complaints, and, if we allow more residences in the commercial district, we’ll see more problems. It’s a can of worms.”

A concern expressed by residents during the hearings involved pending requests for permission to site helipads on private property. Residents warned the council about the “obnoxious noise” they would suffer from helicopters and raised concerns about landing helicopters downwind.

Attorneys representing the applicants have said that applications have the blessing of the R.I. Airport Corporation. Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said during the Oct. 15 meeting that “anything which is not permitted by the ordinance is expressly prohibited” – and there doesn’t seem to be any council support for providing an exemption.

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