A residential developer has cleared its first hurdle to build three single-family houses on undersized lots that need combined relief of 540,881 square feet to conform with the zoning code.
The master plan for the application by Church Community Housing Corporation to develop the 1.3-acre lot at 91 Carr Lane, including two affordable units, was approved May 18 by the planning commission. The commissioners voted 5-1 to endorse the development with Diane Harrison dissenting. Duncan Pendlebury, Rosemary Enright, Mick Cochran, Bernie Pfeiffer and Dana Prestigiacomo voted to approve.
The approval of a master plan, however, does not mean shovels can break ground. A master plan, according to state law, is “an overall plan for a proposed project site outlining general, rather than detailed, development intentions. It describes the basic parameters of a major development proposal, rather than giving full engineering details.”
With approval of the master plan, the nonprofit housing agency in Newport advances to a hearing on the preliminary plan that “requires detailed engineered drawings, and all required state and federal permits.”
The planning commission is acting as the local review board, which gives it complete jurisdiction to approve or deny the application. State law allows zoning hearings to be bypassed for developments that have at least 25 percent of their units earmarked for affordable housing.
The application is being met with opposition from neighbors and the Conanicut Island Land Trust because of its proximity to the watershed. Mike Resnick, the attorney for Church Community Housing, however, provided testimony from a land-use expert, Nancy Letendre. The municipality, she said, “must pursue” partnerships between developers and conservation groups “in order to simultaneously achieve the goal of open space preservation and the goal of affordable housing development,” according to the town’s comprehensive plan. She said the policy “relates perfectly to this application.”
Attorney Kelly Fracassa, who represents the Conanicut Island Land Trust, disagreed about forcing these partnerships because protecting the water supply also is a significant part of the comprehensive plan. He said affordable housing and conservation are “very worthy goals.”
“We all know that,” he said. “But we also know that on certain occasions, they are going to clash. That’s an easy one. There’s no getting around that.”
The conservation commission, in a memo dated May 16 to the planning board, sided with Fracassa. While the conservationists “enthusiastically support” affordable housing, they recommended for these developments to be “proposed in less environmentally sensitive areas.” Their concern about the Carr Lane project was the “critical and fragile” water supply.
“Basically, it’s the right thing to do in the wrong place,” they wrote.
Resnick called the recommendation premature because his client has not submitted a hydrogeological report to determine the impact on the water supply. That will come during the preliminary stage, he said.
While the conservation commission recommended against the project, another public body endorsed it. Quaker Case, on behalf of the affordable housing committee, advised the planning board to approve the “attractive, technically sophisticated and socially sensitive plan.”
Ultimately, the master plan was approved with conditions. That includes limiting the project to three lots, including one marketrate property and two affordable units, and a prohibition on onstreet parking. Church Community Housing also must hire a hydrogeological expert to conduct a peer review of its study.
That hydrogeological review, however, might not be the only review required. Christian Belden, executive director of Church Community Housing, inquired about the number of potential experts his agency would be required to hire to satisfy the board.
“I’m not sure we can put a top on that because we’re not sure what we’re going to see,” said Pendlebury, who was serving as chairman due to Mike Swistak’s recusal. “In the past, when we asked for a peer review, it’s either because something is very complicated, or it is something that may be controversial. For example, traffic. I’m not saying we want a peer review of traffic. I’m just saying that if there is something that requires it, we do have the right to ask for it. And we will ask for it if we need to.”
CORRECTION: The original version, which appears in the printed edition, misidentified the member of the affordable housing committee.