2013-06-13 / Front Page

Planners give OK for historic district

Recommendation for Shoreby Hill now goes to council for consideration
By Nick Pereira

The Planning Commission at its June 5 meeting voted to send a 16-page recommendation to the Town Council about the creation of a Lower Shoreby Hill historic district.

If the councilors move forward on the endorsement, a new board would have to be created to control the neighborhood. By making Shoreby Hill a historic district, specific zoning changes would be made.

The major concern, according to Commissioner Michael Smith, is the risk of having a proliferation of historic districts on the island.

“The camel’s nose is under the tent,” he said.

In order to accommodate the worries, the commission made three changes to its recommendation. The changes would make it more difficult to create additional historic districts. Following the amendments, the planners voted unanimously to approve the recommendation.

“You threw me that bone,” said Smith. “How can I oppose it?”

The creation of a Lower Shoreby Hill historic district now goes to the Town Council for consideration.

In other news, the Planning Commission voted down an application from resident John Somyk to construct a home on a Beacon Avenue lot.

Somyk’s application dates back to last year and he has appeared several times before the planning board. The application centers on the shape of his lot. Although the land is large, the odd “L” shape of the property prohibits the applicant from meeting the town’s required 150-foot setback from wetlands.

The town took the extraordinary step of hiring an outside expert to verify the findings of George Gifford, a professional hired by Somyk. At a prior meeting, Gifford, a wetlands analyst, submitted a report to the Planning Commission saying that the construction of rain gardens would result in zero impact on the abutting wetlands.

Scott Rabideau, the expert retained by the town, discussed some of his conclusions about the wetlands abutting Somyk’s property.

He said the wetland is already surrounded by a “moderately dense residential zone.” Rabideau went on to explain that some Rhode Island towns rank their wetlands in order to determine vulnerability. Jamestown does not. All island wetlands are protected the same, he said.

“Not all wetlands are created equal,” said Rabideau.

He described the wetlands in question as “tough a swamp as possible to get though.” He also said it consisted of an “active vernal pool,” which he explained is a breeding ground for distinctive plants and animals.

When pressed about his opinion on buffer zones, Rabideau sided with the town. “Obviously, a larger buffer zone around a wetland is a good thing,” he said.

According to Rabideau, Jamestown’s 150-foot setback is three times larger than the state minimum.

Conservation Commission Chairwoman Maureen Coleman spoke against Somyk’s application.

“On an island with a sole source aquifer, wetlands are important,” she said. “The 150-foot setback is our standard for a really good reason.”

Somyk said he would be willing to work with the town in order to modify his application so it could be sent to the Zoning Board of Review with the panel’s recommendation.

However, Planning Commission Chairman Mike Swistak said that such action was not possible.

“We know you want to work with us,” he said, “but we can’t.”

Some commission members openly sympathized with the applicant.

“This is a pretty peculiar application,” said Smith. “I think most people are in sympathy with Mr. Somyk.” Nevertheless, Smith summed up the situation as the commissioners saw it. “The ordinances are stacked against you,” he said. “You’re the last man standing.”

The planners then begrudgingly voted to decline Somyk’s application. A final vote will be held at the next meeting in order to give staff an opportunity to write a final finding of fact.

Despite the vote, Somyk may still be able to build on a neighboring lot that already has a house on it. However, many of the environmentally friendly improvements included in his current application are not required to build on the lot that already hosts a structure.

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