Four apartments proposed for Harbor Church

Wed, 11/22/2017 - 10:00am
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The Harbor Church is seeking Town approval to convert the unused third floor of its Water Street building into four one-bedroom apartments to be rented year-round at “below-market” rates. If completed as proposed, the new apartments would be counted toward the Town’s state-mandated quota of affordable housing units.

For the new apartments to qualify as “affordable housing,” they must be approved under the Affordable Housing provisions of the Town’s Zoning Ordinance (Section 405), which requires a Special Use Permit. The Zoning Board of Review received the church’s application for that permit at its November 15 meeting and scheduled it for a public hearing at its January meeting.

Architectural plans show four apartments with full kitchens and bathrooms, a living/dining area and a separate bedroom, intended for one or two persons. The units share a central hall and would be accessed by an existing interior staircase and a new exterior stair leading down to an existing deck on the second floor. There are already two apartments on the second floor of the church, one for the pastor’s family, the other for the church’s sexton.

The new project is in its preliminary stages, according to documents filed with the town. It was first unveiled in a letter from Tony Pappas, a Trustee of the Harbor Church, to the Block Island Housing Board requesting that the Housing Board write a “letter of sponsorship” for the project to the Zoning Board.

In his Oct. 25 letter, Pappas said: “The apartments will be offered for year-round occupancy only, and at below-market rental rates, in order to help further a 12-month a year viable and vibrant community.”

(No “market rate” was cited by the Harbor Church in its filings. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website, the 2018 “Fair Market Rent” standard for a 1-bedroom apartment in New Shoreham ranges from $874 to $890 per month.)

“We are aware that one of the top priorities going forward of the Block Island Housing Board is to create year-round affordable rental apartments,” the letter continues. “It is our request that the Board compose a letter of ‘sponsorship’ of the church’s endeavor. We believe that is fully within the intent of the Board’s goals, and if a letter should so state, that would be of significant benefit in our permitting and funding processes. Such language would allow us to proceed under the ‘Affordable’ provisions of the town’s zoning ordinance.”

Members of the Housing Board had questions about the church’s intentions and the meaning of “sponsorship” when they considered the request on Nov. 8. Housing Board Chair Cindy Pappas confirmed that the church intends that the new apartments count towards the state’s requirement that 10 percent of each municipality’s housing stock be set aside as affordable. She also said that the church planned to have an “arms-length” relationship with the tenants through a separate corporation, a contract with a property management company, or both.

The Housing Board voted unanimously to send a “letter of support and sponsorship” of the Harbor Church’s proposal to the Zoning Board. (Cindy Pappas recused herself from voting on the issue.) The November 13 letter said, “The Board feels that the proposal is compatible with its purpose and mission, and that the provision of small, stable, affordable rental units in the downtown area, utilizing an already existing building, is of great potential benefit to the community.”

The letter stated that the Housing Board’s expectations” were that the proposed rental units would remain affordable “in perpetuity” and “never be sold or converted to market rate or seasonal use,” and that they would be managed by “an independent organization” charged with ensuring compliance with applicable rules.

At the Zoning Board’s Nov. 15 meeting, Chair Elizabeth Connor noted that the proposed design would not change the building’s exterior except to add a new fire escape, so no Historic District Commission review will be needed. The Special Use Permit process requires advisory opinions from the Conservation Commission and the Planning Board. The church sought a waiver from the requirement for a Development Plan Review by the Planning Board because no site work is needed for the existing structure.

Connor also asked the Harbor Church’s representatives at the meeting to “make a proposal about what ‘sponsorship’ means” at the public hearing, as a “heads up” on possible questions.

The plan’s review by the State Fire Marshal’s office is already in process, Tony Pappas told The Block Island Times in an email after the meeting: “We have an open application at the Fire Marshal’s office as we complete all the submission requirements. The Fire Marshal is not likely to say no; he may add a number of coding requirements that will raise the costs. So we are trying to navigate that aspect.”

The hearing on the First Baptist Church’s application for a Special Use Permit under Zoning Ordinance Section 405 — Affordable Housing for Plat 7, Lot 17, will be on Jan. 24, 2018.