2009-10-29 / News

Zoning amendment wins unanimous council approval

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Town Council last week approved a package of zoning amendments designed to encourage affordable housing development while maintaining the “small town” character of the Village. The Oct. 22 vote was unanimous, and the amendments will become effective 20 days after their passage is formally announced. The announcement will be advertised today, which means the amendment will kick in on Nov. 18 – assuming no one files an appeal against it.

Although it was clear that a majority of the council supported the zoning revisions, it wasn’t clear when the vote would be held. If someone on the panel had raised an unexpected issue, the vote could have been delayed until Nov. 2 – the last day before elections bring in a new council.

Council member Bob Sutton reiterated his concern that the newly elected members will be forced to figure out the amendments on the fly, adding, “In my world, I would have the next council vote on something they will be responsible for, and invested in. But, I have decided that I will give myself a pass and support the amendments. I’ve talked to quite a few store owners and I didn’t hear nasty or mean responses.”

Other council members were less hesitant in their support.

“If you sit down and read the amendments, they follow through and make sense,” said Barbara Szepatowski. “I hope we will pass the amendments tonight and start the process.” Council member Michael White said he was “positive that everyone won’t be happy with the amendments,” but added, “The Planning Commission has done an incredible job of melding all the together. This is a document that can be worked with. The lawyers get nervous with the term, ‘living document,’ but this has lots of checks and balances – and opportunities to change things if they don’t work.”

Planning Commission Chairman Michael Swistak told the council that the six commission members “who voted in favor of these amendments don’t want to be remembered as the people who set back development 10 years and ruined the character of Jamestown.”

Rather, Swistak argued, the amendments will back up “the very strong statement that people have made about traditional design over the years. Look at the new façade on the rec center. Look at the police station – and the work that the council has done to preserve lower Shoreby.”

At the same time, Swistak said, the amendments don’t have “any prohibition against unique or non-traditional design. They don’t change the variance process. They don’t change the zoning districts. They don’t mandate any design guidelines for the R8 or R20 districts unless the lots are undersized.”

But the Planning Commission hopes the amendments will streamline the development process by sending applications to a Technical Review Committee for a first look and recommendations by multiple municipal officials, while simultaneously keeping “the viability of the commercial district in focus,” Swistak said.

Swistak also addressed the allegation that the amendments are “anti-development” because of their limit on maximum lot widths.

“Should someone have the ability to combine lots without the community taking a look? Is that anti-development?” he asked.

Referring to the “Site and Building Plans” language of the amendments, Planning Commissioner and council candidate Michael Smith argued, as he previously has, that the amendments will stifle development.

“Section 82-1103 is all standards, standards, standards. It amounts to architectural zoning and it doesn’t belong in Jamestown. This is bad law that will come back to bite us,” he said.

Although the council didn’t respond to this assertion, the members questioned eventual protections for “buildings of value.” Before the Oct. 15 hearing on the amendments, Town Planner Lisa Bryer edited this language with the qualification that there won’t be any “building of value” designation until the zoning map is amended and standards for the designation are established.

But Sutton said, “This is a bothersome provision because you’d have different requirements for your house [if it was designated a house of value]. It seems overbearing. What if a homeowner didn’t want their house to be a ‘house of value?”

Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said homeowners whose houses are about to receive the designation would be notified, and they could raise their objections at a public meeting – but their objections could be overridden.

Bryer added that the amendments have not changed the rights of homeowners to object to a designation, and added that a houseof value designation should be viewed as a decision that’s taken “for the greater good of the community.”

Because of the state mandate for all R.I. communities to ensure that 10 percent of their housing is affordable, steps are being taken to comply with the law.

“After the Charrette,” said Council President Julio DiGiando, referring to a planning conference held in 2007, “I was aghast at the prospect of affordable housing on little lots. We can’t become a retirement community. But, over the last five to six years, we have tried repeatedly to build affordable housing units – and we’re batting zero-for. We have to do something to make affordable. And, I am persuaded that the TRC will streamline the process. I may not understand every nuance of these amendments, but I will support them.”

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