2013-04-11 / News

Planners continue to mull Shoreby Hill as historic zone

New ordinance, governing body would be established
By Nick Pereira

The Planning Commission last week continued to review the necessary steps needed to establish Lower Shoreby Hill as the town’s first historic district.

The commissioners originally took up the case on March 6 following a request from the Town Council, but many legal questions remained unanswered following the first go-round. (The councilors unanimously voted to support the designation after representatives of the neighborhood association said a majority of homeowners in Lower Shoreby Hill approve the change.)

On April 3 the commissioners wondered about an ordinance already on the books that protects buildings of value. The law allows the town some control over the demolition and remodeling of certain buildings. Commissioner Mick Cochran asked if the ordinance was sufficient.

“Does that, in essence, create what we need?” he asked.

“We would certainly need something with more teeth,” responded Commissioner Rosemary Enright.

She said the existing ordinance protecting buildings of value centers on single structures. If a historic district were created, a new ordinance would be needed to give the town considerable control of the entire zone.

“It is the concept of maintaining the neighborhood more than buildings of value,” said Enright. “It is much easier to deal with if there is a line around it.”

Several Shoreby Hill residents attended the meeting and encouraged the creation of a historic district, saying such a designation would help protect the character and charm of the neighborhood.

Chairman Mike Swistak spoke to their concerns. “The historic district is going to happen,” he said.

Several of the legal questions posed at the earlier meeting were answered last week. At the March 6 meeting, Town Planner Lisa Bryer said establishing an official historic zone would require a body for enforcement. However, the planning commissioners weren’t sure if they could double as the new panel. They said there was already trouble filling vacancies on town boards, and a new committee may be hard to staff with volunteers.

The commissioners learned last week that any committee created to regulate the historic zone must be independent. While the Planning Commission could not sit as a committee for the historic district, individual commissioners would be able to serve on the potential board.

It was the general consensus that any commission governing the new board should consist of seven members.

“Seven commissioners would avoid inherent conflicts,” said Swistak. “It would allow recusal and could still achieve a quorum.”

However, that would mean at least four Jamestowners would have to be appointed before the commission could operate, which could potentially create delays. There are only about 80 homes in the suggested historic district, which could limit the pool of residents motivated to serve, Swistak said.

The matter was continued until May 1.

In other news, the Planning Commission revisited an application from John Somyk requesting permission to build a home on a Lshaped lot surrounded by wetlands off Beacon Avenue.

The unique shape of the lot means Somyk can’t meet the 150- foot setback required in the town ordinance. The 150-foot setback is designed to protect wetlands. However, current rules would allow Somyk to build a barn or another house closer to the street.

“How are we preserving anything here?” he asked. “What are we protecting?”

According to Somyk, if his application were approved, it would help the environment. He said the proposal includes a number of environmentally friendly provisions that would not be included if he were to build closer to the road.

“This doesn’t seem like we’re protecting the environment here,” he said.

The Conservation Commission has spoken out in opposition of his application.

Currently, Somyk doesn’t have permits for a structure near the street but said it was “a doable fight.”

Somyk has previously submitted a report from wetlands biologist George Gifford. The report said additional plantings proposed in his application would make it possible to build a home without the required setback and still have zero impact on the nearby wetlands.

“Maybe the town should take the time and hire our own consultant to verify Gifford’s findings,” said Swistak. However, he added that hiring a consultant is a rare move for the town.

Commissioner Mike Smith worried that such a move would set a bad precedent. But, Smith was told, it wasn’t unprecedented – the town has done similar things in the past.

“This is a unique situation,” said Vice Chairman Duncan Pendlebury. “It warrants us taking extraordinary measures.”

Enright objected to the idea because it seemed to be an attempt to circumvent the setback. Such an action could make “the 150-foot setback mean nothing,” she said.

Somyk worried that the town was wasting tax dollars simply to collect more evidence against him. He urged the commission to avoid such an action.

“We’re just trying to get it right,” responded Swistak.

The Planning Commission then approved a motion directing the town to hire a wetlands biologist and engineer to verify the conclusions made in Somyk’s application. The matter was continued until the study was completed.

Before adjourning, the commissioners approved a draft motion that would allow the town to pursue a community block grant. The commission’s approval is required before the town may proceed to ensure that any proposed grant uses are in accordance with the comprehensive plan.

The grant is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but administered by the state. Jamestown competes every year and stands to win as much as $200,000.

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