2012-05-10 / News

Planners discuss commercial district

Commission reiterates its opposition against fast food and big-box stores

Jamestown’s downtown commercial district is 96 percent built out, according to Town Planner Lisa Bryer, but the “limited commercial” district down Southwest Avenue is just 10 percent developed.

For planning purposes, do these statistics mean town officials should recruit – or at least encourage – new businesses to come to the limited commercial district?

“What makes commercial business in Jamestown important to us and how do we know when we have enough?” Bryer asked. The question is part of the Planning Department’s new project: “Jamestown’s Economy: A Small Town Economic Development Plan and Strategy.”

She went on to say, “Are we just looking for essential services or something more?”

The planning commissioners stood united on the value of essential services.

Jamestown would be a “poorer community” without the post offi ce, the gas stations, pharmacy, the bank, the small retail shops and the restaurants, Commissioner Michael Smith said. He recommended developing “the financial and zoning tools so those businesses can remain viable in town.”

Smith said the commercial tax base could shrink again in coming years because of zoning regulations. A number of essential businesses, which happen to be located in residential areas, are at risk, he said. Because they had opened their doors before the zoning restrictions came on the books, they were grandfathered. But when these businesses change ownership, the special treatment is supposed to end.

He suggested the study should identify those businesses and consider changing the zoning ordinance, so those stores and companies can stay in Jamestown.

“Essential services are very important to the town,” said Commissioner Duncan Pendlebury. “People become used to stopping at the hardware store.” He added that the shops have become part of the island’s character. Without them, he said, residents would have to leave the island to shop and do typical weekly errands, and that would alter the island lifestyle.

As for attracting new companies, Jamestown could start recruiting new businesses, Pendlebury said, but he would not want fast-food outlets or other types of retail establishments to arrive.

“There are lots of small retail business things we probably wouldn’t want to have here,” he said.

Smith asked for examples of businesses the Planning Commission would oppose.

“A big-box,” Commissioner Rosemary Enright said. “Or an oil refinery.”

Pendlebury said that even a medium-sized retail like Staples wouldn’t fit with the town’s “rural character.”

Michael Swistak, chairman of the Planning Commission, noted the value of maintaining businesses that hire local workers and create jobs for islanders. “In a two-person household, a person working part time is as critical as someone working full time off the island.”

The Jamestown Boat Yard, for example, hires both adults and youths during the peak summer months. When teens find work on the island, they help their parents, who would otherwise have to drive the youth to work over one of the bridges.

Enright said the town has taken some steps to protect farms and open spaces, but nonetheless, Jamestown’s commercial activity has declined from a historical perspective.

The North End used to have a grocery store. “Now we have nothing,” Enright said. She said zoning regulations would prohibit a new market in that area.

She said that some of those regulations need to be looked at, though she acknowledged North End residents might “be just as happy without it.”

Jamestown used to have plenty of hotels, too, she said, and they’ve disappeared due to fire, hurricane and changing economic times. Now when people visit, they’re told to find a hotel in South Kingstown or North Kingstown, not to look at Jamestown for overnight accommodations.

“I think the island could stand a few more B-and-Bs or small hotels,” she said, “but that’s an economic decision.”

Smith said landscapers, plumbers and excavators also should be considered essential services. He also asked if a critical business, like McQuade’s Marketplace, were to leave Jamestown, what would town officials do? Is there an incentive to recruit a replace- ment?

Bryer said no.

“Right now, the free market rules in Jamestown,” she said.

Bryer said residential property now comprises 96 percent of Jamestown’s tax base because the commercial tax base has shrunk since 2000.

“Commercial was 5 percent in 2000,” she said. “Now, it’s down to 4. What that really means is that we value and we prize our commercial district, but in reality, it’s not paying our bills. It’s really the residential.”

Bryer said questions about growth in the limited commercial districts are part of the Community Comprehensive Plan, but the survey did not give a clear answer on how the residents feel about more development along Southwest Avenue.

When asked if they favored growth in the limited commercial district, an equal number of respondents replied “yes,” “no” and “not sure.” Bryer went on to suggest that the survey question might have been flawed. Given the uncertainty, town officials should give the community a new opportunity to discuss the issues, she said.

Bryer wants the Planning Commission to hire a consultant to assess the local economy and suggest future strategies for economic development.

The commissioners also questioned if the home-based businesses were being taxed fairly. Swistak said the panel should hear specifics from the tax assessor about when a residential property becomes taxable as commercial property and how business inventories are taxed.

Pendlebury said the commissioners should look “far into the future” and evaluate the tax implication and future tax burden on residents.

“How would the balance of residential and commercial tax base look 20 years from now?” he asked.

In other business, the planning board canceled a site visit to the Portsmouth wind turbine due to a potential violation of the open meetings law, Swistak said. The site visit will be rescheduled after the May 16 meeting.

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